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  • An Inquiry Into Kawaiaha‘o Seminary’s “Melting Pot” Photograph Published in The National Geographic Magazine in 1924
  • Tomiko Conner (bio)

The February 1924 edition of The National Geographic Magazine was wholly dedicated to “The Hawaiian Islands” and included a photograph captioned “Thirty-Two Girls, Each of a Different Race and Racial Combination, All Attending Kawaiahao Seminary, Honolulu: A Striking Illustration of the Mixture of Races That is Taking Place in Hawaii.” Founded in 1864 as a mission school for Hawaiian girls, Kawaiaha‘o Seminary operated independently until 1908 when it was combined with several other mission supported schools—the Mills Institute for Chinese boys, the Okamura Japanese Boarding School, and the Korean Methodist Boarding School—to form Mid-Pacific Institute. Kawaiaha‘o Seminary became the Kawaiaha‘o Girls’ Department, [End Page 139] but was still referred to as Kawaiaha‘o Seminary for many years. It was not until the 1920s, when the Girls’ and Boys’ Departments were combined to create a fully integrated coeducational academic program, that the name Kawaiaha‘o Seminary fell into disuse.

The photograph, one of a series, was taken about ten years earlier on the steps of the Kawaiaha‘o Girls’ Department on the campus of Mid-Pacific Institute by teacher, Roselle F. Faast. Widely distributed in Hawai‘i, the photo was used in The National Geographic Magazine and at least one other image in the series was distributed by Mid-Pacific under the heading of “The Melting Pot” or “The ‘Melting Pot’ of Many Nations” accompanied by an index card which identified the girls by number and their racial and ethnic backgrounds or nationalities. The photographs were created as a record of the accomplishments of Kawaiaha‘o Seminary, which in 1914 was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding. They were a visual aid in efforts to interest current and potential benefactors to support the continuation of the school’s work.

Beginning with the photographs’ very first publication, the identities of the girls pictured in the series were never included in the descriptions. The images of these 32 girls, as a group or in subsets, were numbered and labeled with descriptions of their “pure” and “mixed” heritages and would appear in newspapers, journals, official reports, and academic writings over the ensuing 100 years. The photographer, the girls photographed, and the school could hardly have imagined the far-reaching distribution, well beyond the boundaries of Hawai‘i, that the photographs would ultimately have or the varied narratives and meanings that would be attached to the images. Ten years after it was taken, the 32-girl-photograph was already described by The National Geographic Magazine in 1924 as, “the much discussed photo.” The use of this image and others in the series would remain a part of ongoing and evolving discussion about race that would continue into the next millennium.

The images fit neatly into a developing narrative of Hawai‘i as a “melting pot”—an exceptional multicultural paradise where racial harmony and assimilation prevailed. The phrase “melting pot” was common parlance in the United States by the first decade of the twentieth century. Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play “The Melting Pot” had solidified this phrasing for an oft-used metaphor of melting or smelting, [End Page 140] shorthand for an idealized process of American acculturation and assimilation in discussions of race and immigration. Several scholars have credited sociologist Romanzo Adams, a pioneer of studies on race relations in Hawai‘i, as the first to apply the phrase explicitly to describe Hawai‘i in 1926.1 However, these photographs and their captions, circa 1914, predate that usage.

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Figure 1.

Taken in 1914, the images of these 32 girls, as a group or in subsets, were numbered and labeled with descriptions of their “pure” and “mixed” heritages and would appear in newspapers, journals, official reports, and academic writings over the ensuing 100 years. Courtesy of Mid-Pacific Institute.

Excluding the various ways that the school has made use of the images, the photographs from the series have been reprinted or referenced in no fewer than 20 publications. Numbered and identified only by race or nationality, the names of...


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pp. 139-146
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