Racism in the U.S. Congress nearly derailed Hawaii becoming the 50th state, as Sarah Miller Davenport reports.
Sixty years ago, Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation making Hawaii America’s 50th state. The Hawaii admission act followed a centuries-old tradition in which American territories –acquired through war, conquest and purchase – became fully integrated states of the union.
But Hawaii was not an ordinary United States territory and would be unlike any other American state.
For one, Hawaii was not actually in America, at least not physically. Its islands lay in the Pacific, some 2,000 miles from the U.S. west coast.
And Hawaii would become the first state with a majority of people of Asian descent. Many had been ineligible for U.S. citizenship only a few years earlier, before the end of racial restrictions to naturalization.
These two defining characteristics – of Hawaii’s geography and demography – had led Congress to dismiss earlier bids for statehood before World War II. Hawaii was too far away and too Asian to be joined with the continental United States.
Asian Migration Conduit
Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898. That was five years after white settlers in the islands overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy to establish an American-led government.
Americans had first arrived as missionaries in 1820, and stayed on to establish sugar and pineapple plantations throughout the islands. A shortage of Hawaiian labor led them to seek workers from Asia – first China and later Japan and the Philippines.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, Hawaii became a major conduit for Asian migration to the American mainland, where anti-Asian racism led to a series of immigration exclusion acts. The first of these was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which eventually led to the near-total restriction of Asian migration in the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act.
Throughout this period, the American settlers who dominated…