- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2007

BALTIMORE (AP) — He was of Samoan ancestry; she was a white girl from Locust Point. They fell in love in the Hawaiian Room in the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore in 1963.

The racial difference seemed acceptable, even romantic, to them. Meki To’alepai was a dancer in a Polynesian troupe. At a performance, JoAnn Kovacs was seated in the audience until, seduced by the music and encouraged by friends, she started dancing herself, catching his eye.

But when the time came to get married, “we were turned away,” she told the Baltimore Sun.

That failed attempt to wed in Maryland led to national publicity and a campaign to end the state’s miscegenation law, which banned most forms of interracial marriage. This spring marks the 40th anniversary of its repeal.

That change was made too slowly to suit Meki and JoAnn To’alepai. They exchanged vows in 1966 in the District, where it was legal for white women to marry so-called “brown” men. The newlyweds left for California.

Forty years of marriage followed, and the subject of race has rarely surfaced. The To’alepais think of themselves as entertainers, not civil rights warriors. They are back in Baltimore’s Locust Point neighborhood, where they returned not long after the law changed.

“We never really talked about it, never really even told our children,” Mrs. To’alepai said.

Said Mr. To’alepai: “We were too busy being happy to be angry.”

They spent much of their marriage running their Pacific Island performance company called Meki’s Tamure, or “Meki’s Fun Group.” It tours schools and social halls, doing the Fijian dwarf dance, the New Zealand Poi ball dance and the Tahitian Hokule’a Ote’a.

When the To’alepais met, Hawaii had been a state for only a few years and Pacific culture was fashionable. People conducted luaus, and several tiki-themed clubs opened in downtown Baltimore, where they featured Hawaiian revue performances.

Mrs. To’alepai grew up in Locust Point, listening to Haleloke, a frequent performer on Arthur Godfrey’s variety show, and dreaming of a more exotic life. In her early 20s, while working as a nurse, she got a part-time job checking coats at an island club, where she learned to hula. She sometimes performed professionally.

At the same time, Mr. To’alepai was a young immigrant finding that he could get paid to do the dances he had done for fun back home in Western Samoa, which he left in 1960. He quit his job in a California tennis shoe factory and took his Flaming Fire Knife act on the road, performing with a group in Las Vegas and other Western showplaces. In the fall of 1963, his group contracted to work at the Emerson Hotel, where they were popular.

“My mom says, ‘You’ve got to see this group,’ ” Mrs. To’alepai recalled.

The night that she danced the Hukilau, a fishing song, marked the start of a whirlwind romance and several months of hula-club hopping.

But when the Emerson contract ended, Mr. To’alepai had to take a train back to California. “I think I cried the whole way,” he said.

For more than a year, they talked nightly on the phone. Then the banana farmer’s son asked the longshoreman’s daughter to marry him.

A neighborhood priest told them about Maryland’s miscegenation law, which had banned blacks and whites from marrying for more than 300 years. It was amended in 1935 to stop weddings between whites and “the brown race,” which included some Pacific Islanders.

The priest wanted permission to alert reporters to their plight; the couple agreed, thinking it was the right thing to do and that the press would save the cost of a wedding photographer when they got married in the District.

Reporters showed up, and the To’alepais’ story made Time magazine and major newspapers. From Annapolis to Honolulu, legislators condemned the law and promised to work for a change. The couple’s plight continued to be referenced in news stories up to the law’s repeal on March 24, 1967. That was a few months before the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia, ending all race-based restrictions on American marriages.

These days, the To’alepais don’t dance as much as they used to. She is 66; he is 67. They have turned over Meki’s Tamure to one of their three children, a son also named Meki. They also have given up the day jobs, hers in nursing, his in highway maintenance, that used to help make ends meet. Mr. To’alepai is involved with the ministry of a Samoan church in Virginia.

But there is one song that brings Mrs. To’alepai to her feet even now.

“This is the moment/ Of sweet Aloha/ I will love you longer than forever/ Promise me that you will leave me never.”

It’s the Hawaiian Wedding Song.

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