Hanamaulu School Principal Carlotta Stewart Lai (1881-1952) — one of the first African American women to make their home in Hawaii, and Hawaii’s first African American school principal — was born in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of African American clergyman, attorney and civil rights leader Thomas McCants Stewart and Charlotte Harris Stewart.
She arrived in Honolulu in 1898 with her father and stepmother, Alice Stewart, and in 1901 enrolled in Punahou School, then known as Oahu College, from which she graduated and completed requirements for a Normal School teaching certificate in 1902.
Following her graduation, she accepted a post as an English teacher at Punahou, and frequently wrote her older brother McCants in Portland, Oregon, of the busy social life of parties, camping and surfing she enjoyed outside the classroom.
In 1906, she informed her brother that “We took in two dances a week at the Seaside Hotel and played cards at home the other evenings or made up moonlight bathing parties.”
By 1908, she was earning a salary of $1,200 a year, good money in those days, enough to provided herself with a comfortable standard of living on Oahu and to finance inter-island travel and occasional steamship trips to the mainland.
A year later she was promoted to principal of Koolau Elementary School, Kauai, and from 1929 to 1944, when she retired with 41 years of service with the Department of Education, she was the principal of Hanamaulu School, now the site of King Kaumualii Elementary School.
Student enrollment at Hanamaulu School varied from about 250 to 300 students during her tenure there, and in addition to managing the school, she supervised classrooms and taught English.
Carlotta Stewart was married at Anahola in 1916 to Yun Tim Lai, the sales manager of Garden Island Motors, Kauai’s Ford dealership.
Their marriage ended in 1935 when her husband died suddenly in Hong Kong while visiting relatives.
They had no children and she never remarried.
Ill health forced her to leave her home on Kauai in 1951 and enter Manoa Home Hospital on Oahu, where she died in 1952.
Source: The Garden Island