On Aug. 21, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a proclamation admitting Hawaii into the Union as America’s 50th state after more than a half-century as a U.S. territory. Since 1969, Statehood Day—or Admission Day, as it was called until 2001—has been a state holiday, held on the third Friday in August.
You might think Hawaii would celebrate Statehood Day each year with fireworks, speeches, bands and parades. In fact, the fanfare is usually so nonexistent that many of us kids used to think that “Admission Day” was when you were supposed to register for the new school year, or at least pick up fresh school supplies to get ready for it.
To understand the story behind this low-key and often misunderstood holiday, we have to take a look at Hawaii’s unique history.
First of all, calling this holiday “Admission Day” may have been a poor choice. The name echoes back to an earlier and rather unpopular Admission Day holiday, founded in 1900—the last in a string of questionable turn-of-the-century Hawaii celebrations such as “Downfall of the Monarchy Day” and “Birthday of the Hawaiian Republic,” all established by the same new American provisional government and republic that had just overthrown the Hawaiian kingdom. By 1903 these holidays had been quietly dropped after it became apparent that not everyone was eager to celebrate them.
Despite mixed emotions in the Islands as Hawaii transitioned from an independent country to an American territory, the topic of American statehood had already long been on the table. Once annexed by the U.S., statehood became an increasingly urgent issue for many residents. As a territory, Hawaii would be taxed, was subject to American laws and unable to elect its own governor, and its delegates to Washington had no power to vote. Some residents also hoped that statehood would weaken Hawaii’s so-called “Big Five” corporations, which had long dominated local industries and politics.
Hawaii’s role in World War II was instrumental in helping it progress toward statehood. In March 1959, the U.S. Congress finally agreed to allow Hawaii into the Union. On June 27, registered Islanders overwhelmingly cast their votes in favor of statehood. On Aug. 21, statehood became a reality.
But once again, not everything was perfect in paradise. As reported both at the time and since, Native Hawaiians may have been less enthusiastic overall about statehood than Hawaii’s large Asian and Caucasian populations. Some expressed fear over the increasing decline of indigenous Hawaiian culture and saw statehood as a final confirmation that the nation of Hawaii was gone forever.
Rev. Abraham Akaka, a Native Hawaiian and minister at Honolulu’s esteemed Kawaiahao Church, summed up the state of emotions across Hawaii in his congregational address the day after the statehood bill had passed Congress: “There are some of us to whom statehood brings great hopes, and there are those to whom statehood brings silent fears … There are fears that Hawaii as a state will be motivated by economic greed; that statehood will turn Hawaii … into a great big spiritual junkyard filled with smashed dreams, worn out illusions; that it will make the Hawaiian people lonely, confused, insecure, empty, anxious, restless, disillusioned—a wistful people.”
By the 1970s, Hawaii had entered a new era: the Hawaiian Renaissance, inspired by indigenous cultural revivals worldwide and ongoing frustration over cultural loss and commercialization. Interest in Native Hawaiian music, crafts, language, dance, mythology, voyaging technology and other traditions skyrocketed, accompanied by more assertive stances on political issues and land rights.
By the 1990s, this had led to a reexamination of the 1893 American overthrow of the Hawaiian government. When in 1993 President Bill Clinton issued an official U.S. apology for the century-old coup and annexation, it added fuel to the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement as well to conversation not only about the effects of statehood, but also whether Hawaii could and should be semi-autonomous or even an independent nation once again.
As you can imagine, with this backstory, Hawaii’s Statehood Day/Admission Day is about as loaded as a nonreligious holiday can get! For most of us, however, it’s just another day off work. In 2002, Gov. Ben Cayetano summed up today’s statehood perspective well: “The people of Hawaii enjoy a diversity unlike any state in the nation. We are committed to ensuring unity and equality for all of our residents. While we celebrate the differences that define and enrich our Island culture, we also treasure our identity as Americans and affirm our shared commitment to a happier and more prosperous future for all.”
If you’re here on Statehood Day, the third Friday in August, expect government offices and schools to be closed, as well as banks. Most other businesses will be open. Statehood Day is a perfect day to learn about Hawaii’s rich history at cultural institutions such as Bishop Museum and Iolani Palace.
Photos by Stacy Pope; Brett Uprichard; Hawaii State Archives