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In November of 1945, LIFE Magazine declared Hawaii “the world’s most successful experiment in mixed breeding, a sociologist’s dream of interracial cultures.” The islands—which would become the 50th American state on Aug. 21, 1959—were populated by more than a dozen ethnic groups. Intermarriage was common, and from the children produced by those marriages, LIFE declared, “a new race is emerging and stabilizing.”
Photographer Eliot Elisofon’s portraits of the people of Hawaii serve as a visual aid to the magazine’s utopian perspective on the territory. A young white girl and a young Chinese girl hold hands as they play together. A white man from Indiana and his Chinese wife pose for a sweet family photo with their two young daughters. A series of attractive young women are presented with captions that describe their racial makeup: “Caucasian-Hawaiian,” “Asiatic-Caucasian,” “Asiatic-Hawaiian.” All are smiling, windswept, a picture of harmony.
Though the magazine doesn’t completely evade mention of racial tensions—the story acknowledges that some upper class whites worked to maintain subtle color lines—the tone is overwhelmingly sunny. Despite their origins in Japan, China, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and elsewhere, the magazine explained, the territory’s 430,000 residents were unified by English as an increasingly universal language, by church communities and by American schools. “There are so many races, pure and mixed,” LIFE declared, “that prejudice for or against any one of them is simply impractical.”
Impractical as it may have seemed from the outside, that prejudice certainly did exist, and the omission of this more troubling side of Hawaii’s history of race relations is not unique to this LIFE photo essay. Depictions of Hawaii, particularly by outsiders, have historically done a thorough job recounting the islands’ superficial qualities—laid back tropical vibes, idyllic scenic beauty—and glossing over the more troubling elements of the island’s history, like marginalization of the native Hawaiian population, internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and discrimination against Filipino laborers.
Perhaps this is why many Hawaiian residents receive the state’s annual statehood anniversary celebrations with lukewarm enthusiasm. Despite the fact that the vast majority of registered voters favored statehood in 1959, members of Hawaiian sovereignty groups still believe that the political and cultural silencing of the Hawaiian people was set in motion in 1893, when the U.S. overthrew the kingdom of Queen Lili’uokalani for control of the islands’ sugar plantations. Complex debates about sovereignty, recognition and a just path forward continue in full force today.
Elisofon’s photographs beautifully illustrate a story of unity and respect for differences. And that story is true—it’s just not the only one.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.