Why have people from around the world made the journey to Wisconsin over the past two centuries? How have those individuals adapted to and been influenced by their new home? For Neenah, Wisconsin, a community of around 27,000 people living near Lake Winnebago and the Fox River, there were two major waves of immigration. An exhibit called "Tracing Our Paths: Neenah's Immigration Stories" opened at Neenah Historical Society's Octagon House in 2021, funded in part with a Mini Grant from Wisconsin Humanities. The museum worked closely with members of the community to share stories about both the factors that "push" people out of their homelands, as well as those that "pull" immigrants to settle in specific regions.
"When we learn people's background stories, I think it really helps us to connect to each other and to have better relationships with those who live with us in our community," explained former museum director Jane Lang.
One portion of the exhibit shared stories from Xiong Yang and his family. Yang's family came to the U.S. in 1989 and settled in the Oshkosh area to be near family members who had arrived before them. The Yang family is Hmong and left Laos after the withdrawal of American troops following the Vietnam War. Yang shares that his parents and four of his siblings all celebrate the same birthday, June 15th. Many Hmong people had this day assigned to them as their birthday when they came to the United States, as it was not customary for Hmong in Laos to know an exact date when they were born.
Yang explained, "I know that there’s a lot of Hmong families out there who have a very exact same story as mine, but this is my story and my family’s story.”
The exhibit closed in 2022 but the stories and photos are now part of a book! You can purchase the book at the Neenah Historical Museum and on their website.
We caught up with Jim Taylor, the current Executive Director of the Neenah Historical Society, to learn more about how this exhibit impacted the Neenah community and the museum's work.
WH: What do you want people who may not have seen the exhibit to know about Tracing Our Paths – Neenah's Immigration Stories?
Taylor: The exhibit illustrated in many ways the richness and variety of immigration stories. For what on the surface appears to be a static midwestern community, this closer look revealed an interesting evolving demographic. The once almost exclusively European immigration has given way to new arrivals especially from throughout Asia and Latin America. One of the exhibits' most popular features was a large world map. Visitors were encouraged to place a colored pin in the country from which they or their ancestors emigrated.
WH: How has the project and exhibit impacted the community?
Taylor: Most of the older people who visited knew about their families' heritage and had a sense of their ancestry. They told stories and reminisced about what they had been told about their grandparents and great-grandparents' emigration. Many of the younger people who visited didn't know much about their families' origins. When they came to the world map, they had to ask their parents or grandparents where to place their pin. I believe the exercise was an important educational experience on both general and personal levels.
WH: What’s next for Neenah Historical Society?
Taylor: The Society has joined with the Menasha Historical Society to mount our current exhibit "Neenah & Menasha Sesquicentennials: Two Cities, One Community". Neenah's 150th anniversary is this year and Menasha's is in 2024. In addition to the exhibit that is free and open to the public, we sponsor related programming at the Neenah Public Library. In April, for example, Dr. Carol Cornelius spoke about 19th-century Native American removal from this region.
WH: How can people support your work?
Taylor: Visit! Membership and donation support information can be found on the Neenah Historical Society website.
Want to know more?
One story that is included in the Tracing Our Paths book is from Xiong Yang, who is one of the first Hmong firefighters in the state.
Love Wisconsin also had a chance to talk with Yang and share his story, which you can find in our Love Wisconsin collection at lovewi.com/xiong-yang
Photo credit: Courtesy of Xiong Yang
We invite you to learn more about Wisconsin Humanities grant program here!