Featured photo: Edward Bruce Keohohou (photo by Nancy Sidelinger Herring)
In celebration of AAPI month, TCB will be sharing stories by PAVE NC, a local volunteer-run organization that highlights the stories of Asian-Americans in the South for the month of May. Find this and other stories at pavenc.org.
PAVE NC sat down for a conversation with Edward Bruce Keohohou, a native Hawaiian who has called Greensboro home since the late ’80s. He spoke to us about Hawaiian culture, what brought him to Greensboro, and his political achievements.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you ended up in Greensboro?
Aloha ‘auinalā, good afternoon. My name is Edward Bruce Kalaniopu’u Kamehameha Keohohou, which Kalaniopu’u Kamehameha means “the heaven protects the lonely one.” My surname, Keohohou, means Hope of life. It’s a pleasure to be here to share my voice as well as my experiences here as I challenge and help grow with the state of North Carolina.
What brought me here to Greensboro, well, to the state of North Carolina, was my application to go to a graduate school here. I chose to go to Duke University. I graduated from the first E-MBA program, started in 1987, which was a 20-month program, and I enjoyed it. Every time I tried to go back home, I had a good job offer that kept me here.
So my love for North Carolina is great. I call it my hānai home, which is my adopted home. I can’t claim myself to be a Tar Heel, but I’ll claim myself as a Blue Devil.
In the midst of ACC territory, where the Carolina-Duke rivalry is great, that can be a divisive statement.
Yes. Well, I really can’t claim myself to be a Tar Heel ’cause I wasn’t born and raised here. So I was more or less born and raised hānai by Duke University so this is why I use that as my persona.
Fair enough, fair enough. What is your profession?
I’m in hospitality. I did retire from Duke University after teaching 28 years. So when I’m not teaching, I’m working in or managing restaurants in Greensboro.
Could you tell us about your family and growing up Hawaiian?
Well, to start off, I mean, like any other culture, normal growing up, teenage life, and so forth. I grew up in the church. When I say the church, it’s the Royal Church of Hawaii, which is Kawaiaha’o. It is considered the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii, where all the royal families who were Christian married, funerals are held and so forth.
My ancestry is very deep. Like I said previously, my great-great-grandfather served under King Kalākaua in the House of Nobles, as well as King Kamehameha V in the House of Nobles and my great-grandmother was the lady-in-waiting for Queen Kapi’olani, which was the consort for King Kalākaua. Also, she served as the lady-in-waiting for her Highness, our last monarch, Lydia Kamaka’eha Lili’uokalani.
Also, just recently, we lost one of our royal family, Abigail Campbell Kawānanakoa. I knew her very dearly. We called her Royal Grace, Abigail Kawananakoa, she was our “Mo’i Ali’i Kupuna, or Royal Chieftess. She was the one that brought me to Duke University because she was good friends with Doris Duke. I became a benefactor of the Doris Duke Estate. I’m really privileged and honored to have been a part of that experience.
As far as growing up, we surfed. I was always very active. Even when I was in… what you call middle school, we called it intermediate school, being class president and all that. When I was in high school, I was the first person appointed as secretary general to the state conference for all the high schools, which was appointed by the State legislature, as well by the governor.
And I worked closely at that time with Governor Burns. I have an uncle who served as a governor for two terms back in ’86 to ’94. My godfather is the late Sen. Daniel Ken Inouye. My uncle, my mom’s brother Daniel Akaka, was a congressman and a US State senator too, United States senator as well.
There’s a lot of diversity in Hawaii, at the same time it is also not immune to racism. Can you talk about that?
Well for me, when I was growing up, I won’t say it was racism so much as it was more prejudice. But as years went on, then I saw racism as what we see here, and it was primarily towards the other Pacific people like the Fijians, the Micronesians, the Tongans, the Samoans, and so forth.
As far as the nucleus of Hawaii, the people were always together. They were all sustained. And even when the Vietnamese came after the war, they were very well accepted. Hawaii is a very accepting place, but to compare it to the racism here, it’s really not much. It’s not so much, I would say, like the kind of racism we have here where we’re segregated and so forth. It’s just this mentality of why are they here and so forth.
But we all learned to live with it, but then again… there are times when I go back home, and we never had the kind of crime that we are experiencing now in Hawaii and the homeless that we’re experiencing in Hawaii.
Have you encountered racism in Greensboro?
I don’t see for me that I have been treated with racism. I’ve seen it happen. In fact, living here, I remember I was working at Tex & Shirley’s back in 1987, and in fact, I was their only male waiter at that time. It’s funny, there was this one guy that came in, and when I approached his table, he called the owner at that time, and said, “I don’t want this person waiting on me.”
The owner argued that I was a good waiter, but the customer said I was an immigrant. He said it right in front of my face. I don’t know what he was thinking, but he tried to get me fired. There was no reason for me to get fired, I was doing my job.
How did you end up in Greensboro?
Well, for some reason, Duke University gave my room and dorm assignment away. So they put me in an apartment complex about five blocks away from the university. I was unfamiliar with Durham, but I knew people here in Greensboro.
So two weeks into the semester — back then we didn’t have computers, so I went to the library. When I came back, all I saw was a swarm of emergency vehicles, ambulances, firetrucks, police department and I’m seeing all this activity going on. So I’m approaching to go to my apartment and the detective stops and asks, “Excuse me, sir, where are you going?”
I said, “I’m going to my apartment.”
So we go, and I open my door. A drug deal went bad, two people were killed. If I had stayed in my apartment where my desk was — the bullets came straight through the wall. I would’ve been dead. But something told me to go to the library. Thank God.
I called everybody I knew up here in Greensboro. I said, “I don’t care if I have to sleep on your front lawn, I am coming ’cause I don’t feel safe here.”
There’s always been some controversy about land ownership in Hawaii. Can you talk about that?
We still have Crown lands in Hawaii, and when we became a territory, we had to protect certain land for Hawaiians.
Anything going under the State, it’s dispersed however they want to disperse it without consulting the people.
So when people ask me what ethnic group is buying up all the land, they’re buying off what land that the State took. The federal government already took their part of whatever parcel of land, like Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head and other military bases and so forth. But the Crown lands, no one can touch.
This is where my family land is, it’s under Crown lands ’cause I have the documents and it’s locked in a safe where it’s signed by the kings, and only I have the key to this ’cause I’m the head of the family. So we protect our land, our land rights.
Tell us about your political involvement.
In 1987 I was appointed to serve with the Board of Elections. This will be my 19th term with the Guilford County Board of Elections ’cause I serve as a chief judge for a precinct and as a site supervisor for early voting at the old courthouse.
What was so funny is when I came to register to vote here in Greensboro, I called and asked for whatever documents I needed to become a voter here. When I went down there — this is very funny — I don’t know why, but the clerk, when I presented my documents that were requested, kept asking me for my green card.
So I pulled out my Greensboro library card ’cause it was green.
Then she said, “No sir, I need your green card.”
So I pulled out my First Union credit card. It was green.
Then she asked me for my passport. I’m thinking, I haven’t left the country yet, so why would I need to show you my passport?
In the back there was another clerk yelling, “He’s a citizen. He’s a citizen.”
I lost it when this clerk looked at me and said, “I didn’t know y’all were a state.”
What is surprising is that there’s people still working there that remember that.
Is it difficult to remain politically engaged in Hawaii while living here? How have you managed to stay connected to the issues?
I’ve always been in government, especially in Hawaii. Now, my involvement here is no different than my involvement in Hawaii because I was so involved in politics while I was in high school, campaigning for people in the State legislature and the governorship and the city councils and so forth. So it is really no different as far as what I do here and what I do for Hawaii.
Of course, I cannot vote in Hawaii elections ’cause I’m a registered resident here. I am no longer a resident of the State of Hawaii. But as far as politically supporting people in Hawaii, yes. There have been some people running for Congress, the U.S. Senate, governor, Statehouse, and State senate seats, who ask: ‘Hey Ed, can you pull support for me with your people here?’
I look at the issue at hand and look at the person who wants to serve for the betterment of the people with a clear mind, with a clear conscience, and they’ll get my support as far as that.
I am a member of the Guilford County Democratic Party, but I’m also a member of the County Executive Committee, which I am one of the 22 delegates from Guilford County who goes to the State Democratic Party conventions.
I also sit on the State Democratic Executive Committee, and what we do is we deal with resolutions to present to the legislature and the governor or any other governing board throughout the state. I am also a member of the AAPIP, the Association of Asian and the Pacific People within the State party.
How did you get involved with the Greensboro Jaycees?
A friend of mine said, ‘You come with me,’ so I went there. That was the best time of my life because there was always something to do.
If anybody told me at that time, there’s nothing to do, I would say, ‘Come join the Greensboro Jaycees ’cause we were always doing something.’ At the time, we had over 1,200 members.
I chaired committees, and we were building strong relationships with organizations that wanted a strong community.
In the Jaycees, once you turn 40, you have to come out. In 2021, I was awarded the lifetime membership for the Greensboro Jaycees. That’s an honor and I appreciate it very, very much ’cause the old saying we have is ‘Once a Jaycee, always a Jaycee.’
Even after I came out, I still worked with the Jaycees, especially with the Wyndham and all the other tournaments with Chrysler Classic. Anything to do with the Jaycees, as long as it involves the total community, this is where I’m a part of.
Anything in this city that affects a larger impact of the community, I will be a part of. But if it’s something to just deal with such an issue that may or may not be my favorite, then I will not participate ’cause I want to be a positive person, not somebody that wants to promote something negative.
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