Palama Settlement: Jackie Robinson Slept Here

Jackie Robinson Courtesy of
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Jackie Robinson Courtesy of

BY J. ARTHUR RATH III – High School football used to attract over 25,000 fans to Honolulu’s downtown stadium—trolley cars, then public buses could get you there pretty quickly with nary a parking worry.


Rivalries were intense: Kamehameha vs. Saint Louis College, Punahou vs. Roosevelt, Iolani vs. McKinley, and Farrington was everyone’s rival!

Fans sang during football games, each school had stunning girls for song leaders.  We learned to sing football fight songs in harmony (visit old-timers’ class reunions to hear amazing

Hawaii had semi-pro teams, they’d compete against the University of Hawaii.  I rooted for the Hawaiian Packers, mostly Hawaiian men who packed pineapples at the cannery. And there was the Hawaiian Bears…

The Bears brought Jack Robinson (as he was known then) to play on their team in an exhibition game.  He was a UCLA star then when being a black athlete was a real feat.  (It was two decades before Ernie Davis of Syracuse University became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961—and then went on to join Syracuse teammate Jim Brown on the Chicago Bears football team.)

When he wasn’t in the backfield, where could they put Robinson other than on a couch in a player’s home? Only whites could stay in Hawaii’s hotel.  Hawaii’s fancy hotels catered to mainlanders, where that attitude originated.

Athletic Palama Settlement

“Bring Mr. Robinson to Palama, they’ll give him the guest suite and all the kids will love him,” said Bears’ players who’d grown up playing Bare-Foot-Football for the Settlement.

James Arthur Rath came to Springfield College, Mass. from India.  Springfield, where basketball was invented was a prominent YMCA  physical education school.

After graduation, Rath, who’d served in the British Army, brought his wife Ragna to Hawaii because no YMCA  jobs were available in India. He started Palama Settlement in the
worst part of Kalihi—or what was left of it after some fool authorized burning Chinatown because of bubonic flu anxieties.

Palama’s Archives have recently been opened to the public, it displays emphasis on physical education and health. Rath raised money for Palama’s gym and swimming pool. A football field is nearby–Palama had championship barefoot football teams in all weight divisions.  The archives has pictures and reports on Palama’s North Shore Summer Camp where “three pounds” was the average weight gain by inner-city kids.

James Arthur Rath, Jr., who also attended Springfield College, took four Palama boys on a mainland tour and they won every Junior Olympic swimming event. The crawl kick, now universal in free-style swimming, was introduced by Duke Kahanamoku. Uncle Duke’s Palama ohana also showed its effectiveness.

Doctors and dentists helped Palama patients I remember Kamehameha Schools classmate Samuel Kaomea saying:  “Palama is why I have such a toothy grin.” Ragna and volunteers visited tenements, taking milk to babies and food to the infirm, providing nursing
care.  Palama was supported by local generosity, not by taxpayers’ dollars.  Different times.

Robinson: “To My Palama”
The new public archives displays a photograph signed by “Jack” Robinson with thanks to his Palama Settlement friends.

Robinson was returning to California on the Lurline when Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.  After Army service, he became the first Black to break into major baseball. His best pal Hank Greenberg, was the first Jew to make it big in major league baseball.

…Robinson, Greenberg, and everyone else that came along is what Bob Dylan meant by the lead song in his 1964 album, “The Times They Are A-Changing.”

I recall Don Ho telling audiences about us:

“In an era where with much conflict between black and white, it is really nice to be beige.”

“Lucky, you come Hawaii.”

With welcoming arms, Palama’s beige folks fostered this attitude: “Aloha, Jackie, you’re our brother.”