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Mary Lou Parker, 4, plays with Letty Mai Pang, 5, a Chinese, in the playground of a polyracial Honolulu school.
Caption from LIFE. Mary Lou Parker, 4, plays with Letty Mai Pang, 5, a Chinese [schoolmate], in the playground of a polyracial Honolulu school.Eliot Elisofon—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Mary Lou Parker, 4, plays with Letty Mai Pang, 5, a Chinese, in the playground of a polyracial Honolulu school.
Young girl dancing in hula skirt.
Fishing net hanging out to dry in front of fisherman's house with young child underneath.
Plantation worker coming home and washing off his boots.
Old Japanese man walking toward his house.
Children with American flag hanging out on a front porch.
Japanese boys jumping from sea wall while playing as soldiers in American army.
Fisherman by the sea.
At dawn Hawaiians put out to sea to pull in their fish nets. By law, their boat flies the American flag at bow.
An elderly man in Hawaii.
A fisherman with a spear.
Clemon Apeahi is Hawaiian. Rated as shiftless husbands, many Hawaiian men remain bachelors.
Farmers in Hawaii.
A worker on the Dole plantation in Hawaii.
A worker on the Dole plantation in Hawaii.
Plant sprayers at the Dole Plantation in Hawaii.
University of Hawaii girls who are chosen by the student body to serve as Princesses and Queen in annual May Day ceremony held at the University.
Caucasian-Hawaiian (Portuguese, Irish, Hawaiian) is Barbara Sylva, 20, Hawaii senator's daughter.
Girls dressed in hula skirts dancing inside.
Asiatic-Caucasian (Korean, Spanish, Engish) is Lava Pak, 23, and Army translator, named for an eruption.
Two Hawaiian girls walking along the shore.
Waikiki tomboys, under a banyon on beach are (from left) Marion Woolsley, 14, Chinese-Hawaiian-English; Patricia Cameron, 16, Portuguese-Scotch-Irish; Beatrice Clarke, 16, Hawaiian-Chinese-German. Canoes are stored under roots.
A couple in Hawaii.
People dancing at Rainbow Club U.S.O., Hawaii.
People dancing at Rainbow Club U.S.O., Hawaii.
Indiana Quaker, Sam Lindley, married a Chinese Quaker and has two fair haired girls, Renie and Renda. He raises goats and works as librarian at the University of Hawaii. He studies Chinese, wants to visit China.
Chinese family includes elder Youngs, 78 and 71, and son, John, a painter. Chinese brought few wives from China because their bound feet were rated useless on plantations. Exclusion Act, which was repealed in 1943, shut out Chinese in 1900.
Caption from LIFE. Mary Lou Parker, 4, plays with Letty Mai Pang, 5, a Chinese [schoolmate], in the playground of a poly
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Eliot Elisofon—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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The Beautiful Half-Truth of the Hawaiian Melting Pot

Aug 21, 2015

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.

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