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The History Center blog shares research and findings about local history, excerpts from the History Center Archives, information about upcoming exhibits and other opportunities on how to get involved with The History Center in Tompkins County. To learn more or view the archival materials mentioned, visit us in downtown Ithaca, follow us on social media @TompkinsHistory, or subscribe to our monthly newsletter History Happenings

Using Tompkins HistoryForge to share diverse local histories

Thu, November 02, 2023 4:44 PM | Anonymous
The Tompkins County HistoryForge project has been digitizing local census, map, and building records since 2016. Our pilot HistoryForge site is an ever-growing, expanding, and improving public platform for visualizing local history; growing monthly with the contributions of volunteer transcribers and through the support of the National Archives. With data sets that now span over 70 years of local records for the City of Ithaca, the opportunities this database provides for local researchers is huge.

One way our staff have been intentionally using this wealth of digitized content in the last three years is to showcase diverse and historically underrepresented communities and individuals in Tompkins County. Through using search terms like "Foreign Born", "Mother Tongue", "Race", "Place of Birth" and other census categories we are able to search for communities whose records might not be preserved or aren't currently held in our archives and paper collections

This feature has been most utilized in the development of our history and heritage month web pages and corresponding social media series. In developing content for these pages our staff and student workers first explore the materials held in our archives and library collections, but for some identities that do not yet have related archives we turn to HistoryForge

The 1910 census included the category 'Deaf and Dumb'*, "dumb" being an outdated and offensive term meaning non-speaking. By searching HistoryForge using the filter for this question you can see the census results for six deaf residents who were living in the City of Ithaca. This search gave our Masters-student researcher a starting point for her Deaf History Month research. 

You may know that the Southside Neighborhood is a historically black community. Through using the "Race" category in different census years we can see that in 1880 there were 38 households with Black residents in the neighborhood in just the two blocks bordered by S. Corn St, W. Clinton St, S. Plain St, and W. Green StIn 1930 the number of Black residents in the neighborhood had increased to 66, and increased to 106 Black residents in the same two block neighborhood by the 1950 census.

In searching for Hispanic and Latino residents for our Hispanic Heritage Month we used census filters like "Mother Tongue" and "Place of Birth" on each census year. Discovering that the 1900 census for the City of Ithaca had only five residents born in North, Central, and South American Latino countries, by 1940 that number had grown to 78 residents. 

Claire Deng's pioneering research in 2021-2022 on the earliest Asian residents of Tompkins County first started with HistoryForge. By discovering names on the census of residents born in east-Asian countries, she was then able to cross search specific names through newspaper and historic records and discover multi-generational family stories and Asian-owned businesses dating back to the 1800s. This research resulted in the Tang Family Collection and the Tompkins County Asian Diaspora Collection now held in our collections.

The census while a wealth of information, also has faults and historic quirks that make it an incomplete picture of any community. In finding information for Filipino-American Heritage Month, we came up against issues of race classification in different census years. “Filipino” was one of three new racial categories added to the 1920 census. No one on the 1920 census for Ithaca was recorded with the race “Filipino.” One enumerator did, however, encounter a man, Zack N. Dapula, who was born in the Philippines, as were his parents. Without specific instructions on what constituted Filipino as a race, the enumerator visually determined that Dapula was “Mulatto.” In 1930 six people were recorded on the census for the City of Ithaca as "Filipino." Highlighting the inconsistencies of racial categorization on the census, all six also appeared on the 1940 census, but there they were recorded as "White." 

These are a few select examples that show how we are using our local HistoryForge platform (there are now eight HistoryForge sites in four states) to expand the types of stories we are able to find and tell about the history of Ithaca and Tompkins County. Through the two-year National Archives grant awarded to the project in 2022 the project is currently expanding into the rest of Tompkins County. We hope that in the coming years our community will be able to more easily search and discover the stories of historic residents in our rural townships as effectively as we now can for the Town and City of Ithaca. 

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