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Star-Telegram.com

1940 Census data will offer a clearer picture of who we were

Posted Sunday, Mar. 25, 2012

By Steve Campbell

sfcampbell@star-telegram.com

FORT WORTH -- Was Grandma married more than once? How many kids did she really have?

Did Grandpa own the farm or just labor there during the Great Depression?

And where the heck was Uncle Bob? Was he away on a job or in the jailhouse?

Your family secrets might not be so intriguing, but your relatives' answers to at least 34 questions, including some highly personal ones, will be revealed April 2, when the National Archives and Records Administration makes records available from the 1940 Census.

The treasure-trove of individual records has family researchers ready to dive into the data.

"Genealogists are very excited," said Merry Shaw of Mansfield, an avid family researcher. "The beauty of it is that there is so much information. They asked a lot of questions they haven't asked since."

For the first time, the census information will be online at www.1940census.archives.gov.

"You can sit at home in your warm fuzzies and do it," said Meg Hacker, archives director of the National Archives at Fort Worth.

Users can search, browse and download the information, for free, from their computers or from computers at National Archives locations nationwide, including the Fort Worth research center at 2600 W. Seventh St., Suite 162, in Montgomery Plaza.

Consider the records a digital version of a national portrait from a momentous time in America, when the Depression was finally winding down and just before the U.S. entered World War II, Hacker said, noting that the 72-year lapse between collection and release is mandated by the Census Bureau's confidentiality rules.

"They viewed it as an average life span," she said.

It will be a timeworn but in many cases still breathing portrait of a mostly agrarian nation, where only 5 percent of the inhabitants had college degrees (compared with 28 percent in 2010) and races came in only two shades: black and white.

The 1940 head count tallied 132.2 million Americans, 89.2 percent categorized as white and 9.8 percent as black. In contrast with 1930, Hispanics were counted as whites, Hacker said.

An estimated 21.2 million people are still alive who were eligible to be counted in 1940, according to the Census Bureau.

'Snapshots of America'

On April 2, the numbers and percentages from the 1940 Census will turn into names, with details on people's educations, occupations and incomes, not to mention, for women only, information on their marriages and childbirths.

"There are all these things on there that will give you snapshots of America," said David McClellan of Weatherford, a volunteer at the Fort Worth research center.

"1940 was a memorable time, and it's still current. It's going to be pretty exciting to see people connect with their families," he said.

But they shouldn't expect to just type in Granny's name and get the goods.

Names won't be indexed, so you'll need to do a little sleuth work first to find her street address and the corresponding enumeration district -- an area one census taker or enumerator could cover in a month in rural areas or in two weeks in cities, Hacker said.

And that's where it could get tricky: There were around 120,000 enumerators.

"If your people lived in Detroit, you've got a problem. That's a lot of humanity. But if they lived in Midlothian or that vicinity, it might not take long," Hacker said.

Archives staff and volunteers are already teaching people how to find the districts.

Or you can wait until genealogical societies and companies like Ancestry.com index the names, which could take months, Hacker said.

Patsy Miller of Alvarado won't wait that long.

A volunteer at the research center who was born in 1939 in Kennedale, she'll pull up her family's records first thing April 2.

"It's exciting; my whole family will be there. It's going to be really neat to have them there," Miller said.

'Very private'

People who squawked about the 10 questions on the 2010 Census would have been dumbstruck by the 34 questions on the 1940 form. And for the 5 percent of folks who landed on lines 14 and 29, there were 16 supplemental questions.

Many of the inquiries were aimed at capturing information on the impact of the Depression, such as occupations and incomes, as well as hours and weeks worked, Hacker said.

"They were very inquisitive about employment status," she said.

"They are really paying attention to the employment and the lack thereof. So they want to know, 'If you are not working, what are you [doing]?' They need a snapshot of 'Where are we? What do we need to focus on?'"

Questions also covered home values, marital status and citizenship of foreign-born residents.

Supplemental questions included birthplaces for parents and veterans' status, including war service.

Married women were asked "very private" questions: Had they been married more than once, age at first marriage and number of children ever born, Hacker said.

Shaw said, "They could never have asked those questions now."

The government was tracking mobility even during the Depression by asking where people had lived five years earlier.

That month, April 1935, was seared into much of the nation's memory by devastating dust storms, including the Black Sunday storm of April 14, which blew up in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, eventually darkening skies all the way to Washington, D.C.

'Who am I?'

The national landscape has also changed dramatically since 1940, when the 10 most populous states were primarily clustered in manufacturing belts in the Northeast and Midwest.

California and Texas now top the list, but they were Nos. 5 and 6 in 1940, behind New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio.

The list of top 10 cities has shifted considerably, with Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, St. Louis, Boston and Pittsburgh dropping out.

No Texas cities were on the list 72 years ago, now it has Houston (No. 4), San Antonio, (7) and Dallas (9).

Fort Worth, with 177,662 residents, was ranked 46th in 1940. By 2010, it had jumped to 16th, with 741,206.

The National Archives has spent more than three years digitizing 3.9 million images of original census forms that were destroyed after they were microfilmed during World War II, Hacker said.

Elizabeth Russell, a retired librarian from Bridgeport and research center volunteer, said that 1940 might seem like ancient history to young people but that seeing their own connections could bring the time to life.

"I'm intrigued that so many people come in here and they don't even know their grandparents' name. It's pretty amazing, when they find somebody they recognize.

"People want to know, 'Who am I and where do I come from?'"

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

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