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Storytelling Through The Census

Updated: May 23

By Alyshia Korba

A new exhibit at The History Center in Tompkins County recounts the history of the area through the lens of the census, including a look into migration in the county. ReCOUNT: Facing Our Census gives visitors a view into the past 23 decades of Tompkins County.

The exhibit opened April 1 when the U.S. Census Bureau released the 1950s census records. Displays in the exhibit include a focus on education, employment, census procedures, immigration, and definitions of race and the ways these changed over the years.

Two displays centered around immigration to the Tompkins County area, one with a map detailing the origins of immigrants to the county since 1870 and another focusing on Asiatic immigration. While Tompkins County has a rich history of immigration, it is not only seen in the history books, or in this case the census records. The population of Tompkins County is 12.7% foreign born, and this increases to 17.5% in the city of Ithaca, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of July, 2021, the bureau estimates Asian people comprise 10.4% of Tompkins County’s population.

This display depicts the origins of people in Tompkins County in 1870 and 1940. In 1870 there is a major influx of Irish immigrants, and in 1940 most immigrants came from Italy.

Zoë Van Nostrand, marketing and visitor experience coordinator at The History Center, said showing the county’s history of Asiatic immigration is important in subverting the myth that the higher education institutions in the county are the sole reason for the Asian population in the area.

“One of the myths that I heard often growing up here is that the diversity of the community is from the colleges,” Van Nostrand said, “and what I found really powerful about this exhibit — and I know that our curator and our historian, Cindy [Kjellander-Cantu] and Eve [Snyder] did as well — is really pushing back on that and finding out who was here and when, and the businesses they held and the awards they won.”

The display includes historical items on loan from the Tang family who immigrated to Ithaca in the 1930s. Wing and Susie Tang came to Ithaca from Canton, China, and founded the first Chinese restaurant in Ithaca — Asiatic Garden. At the history center, visitors can see original menus and dinnerware from the restaurant which has since become Capital Corner located at 140 W State St.

The history of immigration to Tompkins County has greatly shaped the unique culture of the county that exists today and is seen through the food, shops, art and people of the area.

Tompkins County has a diverse Asian population as shown in this display which also features a Chinese cheongsam dress on loan from the local Tang family.

“That exhibit in particular is this really great way to understand and have a more complete and full look back at who was here, when they were here and how the emergence of an Asian grocery in the 1910s might have really shifted local food understandings,” Van Nostrand said, “how you could have a place like Asiatic garden — which was kind of nicknamed Hong Kong Susie's after Susie Tang — and look at the way that that really shifted the cultural expectations in a time that a lot of very small rural communities in central New York did not have that same access to different ethnic cultures and foods.”

The history center will exhibit ReCOUNT: Facing Our Census until March, 2023. It is available for private visits for people who want a more pandemic-friendly experience or who generally want limited interaction with the public. The center is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and people can schedule a private visit at thehistorycenter.net.



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