The 1940 Census Is Finally Here

The most recent federal census available to the public is the 1940 census. The long-awaited census was released this past April, and it was a cause for celebration by amateur as well as professional genealogists.

According to the National Archives, the 1940 census is made up of 3.8 million images scanned from more than 4,000 rolls of microfilm.

By law, the personal information recorded in a federal census is kept secret for 72 years — for privacy reasons — and then it’s released to the public. Prior to the April 2012 release of the 1940 census, the last new U.S. Census report was made available in 2002. It was the 1930 census. The 1950 census is due for release in 2022.

As reported on, 132 million people were living in the 48 Continental United States in 1940. (Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959, only seven months before Hawaii became the 50th state.)

The 1940 census counted 37.2 million housing units. In fact, it had the first tabulation of housing information. Census takers gathered answers to 31 housing-related questions, including residents’ principal refrigeration equipment and whether they had items such as a radio, running water, toilets that flushed, and outhouses.



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Making Sense of the Census

U.S. Census records can be invaluable. In addition to providing names, family relationships, ages, occupations, and other particulars, they place people geographically, but census records contain errors—for various reasons which I’ll go into at another time.

More reliable sources are individual family records and family Bibles, if available.

The type of information collected by census takers over the decades varied. Free African Americans are enumerated in the 1790 census. The 1870 census holds special importance to researchers because it was conducted five years after the Civil War ended. That means, in many cases, freed slaves were still living on their former masters’ land or nearby. Prior to 1870, slaves were listed as property, not people.

Here are some interesting facts about the U.S. Census, as outlined on the government web site,

The 1790-1820 population schedules were nearly all handwritten; the Government started using printed schedules in 1830. With each census, the forms asked for additional information.

The 1790-1840 schedules furnish only the names of the free heads of family, not of other family members. These schedules totaled the number of other family members, without name, by free or slave status. Also, the sex and age categories that the schedules first used only for free whites from 1790 through 1810 eventually applied to other persons, and the age categories increased after 1790.

The 1820 census first asked about naturalization status. The 1840 census included a special inquiry regarding pensioners for Revolutionary or military service. This section named persons who were either family heads or members and specified the pensioner’s age, not just a range of ages.

The 1850 census was the first to record each person’s name, specific age, occupation of those over age 15, place of birth, and value of real estate. The slave schedules, however, name only the slave owner and indicate only if a slave was black or mulatto, and his or her sex and age.

The 1860 schedules were almost identical to those for 1850, but the 1860 census was the first to inquire about the value of each free person’s personal estate.

The 1870 schedule asked if a person’s father or mother were foreign born. Columns 19 and 20 cover “Constitutional relations.” The enumerator checked column 19 if a male was a “citizen of the U.S. of 21 years of age and upwards.” In column 20 the enumerator marked if a male citizen 21 years or older had his “right to vote denied or abridged on other grounds than rebellion or other crime.” In other words, was the person denied the right to vote in violation of the 14th amendment, which guarantees citizenship, due process, and equal protection under the law for men regardless of race?

The 1880 schedule was the first to ask about the relationship of each individual to the head of the family, specifying what could only be assumed in earlier censuses. Moreover, the 1880 census was the first to inquire about the birthplace of each person’s parents, including the country of those who were foreign born. The census gives the state or country of birth, not the city or county. A fire destroyed many 1890 population and special schedules, and water used to extinguish the blaze damaged many more. As a result, the Government disposed of most schedules. The few remaining 1890 population schedules or fragments are indexed.

Many free resources are available to anyone who wants to access them. That includes online genealogy sites like,, and Some sites are not free, but if you access them at one of the National Archives facilities, there is no charge.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) operates As the site explains: its worldwide records “span billions of names across hundreds of collections—including birth, marriage, death, probate, land, military, IGI extracted, and more.”

The Mormon Church also operates Family History Centers across the country. They are described on the site as “branch facilities of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.”

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as The Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in the War Department in March 1865. The Bureau supervised all relief and educational activities relating to refugees and freedmen, including issuing rations, clothing and medicine. The Bureau also assumed custody of confiscated lands or property in the former Confederate States, border states, District of Columbia, and Indian Territory.

A National Archives brochure details the availability of records left by The Freedmen’s Bureau through its work between 1865 and 1872, noting that “historians have used these materials to explore government and military policies, local conditions, and interactions between freed people, local white populations, and Bureau officials.”

 The National Archives has microfilmed the Bureau’s records, and those records are available to the public.


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The Road to Opelika

How did I get here?

For obvious reasons, searching African American roots is challenging. I’ve devoured genealogical collections at the public library, attended genealogical workshops and meetings, searched online, and delved into mounds of microfilm at the National Archives. On its web site,, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) describes itself as “the nation’s record keeper.” I have the good fortune of living near one of the facilities. Among the locations are: Washington, DC; Atlanta, GA; Anchorage, AK; Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; College Park, MD; Dayton, OH; Denver, CO; Fort Worth, TX; Kansas City and St. Louis, MO; Riverside and San Francisco, CA; New York City; Philadelphia, PA, and Seattle, WA.

When I kept hitting brick walls in my research, I got discouraged and stopped—for several years. After I resumed my search, I happened upon an ally on one of the online genealogy sites, She and I were researching the same surname, and as it turns out, she had already accumulated a wealth of information. We still have not found our common ancestors, but we have records to prove they lived in the same Alabama communities, and we share a surname. Meeting her was a lucky turn of events.

About 12 years ago, I and my “Internet cousin,” who lived in Montgomery, AL, agreed to meet in Auburn, AL for the trek to nearby Opelika. Because she had grown up in that area, she not only knew the lay of the land, but she had been to the former plantation where many of our ancestors were held in bondage. Seeing the old plantation home with my own two eyes was a moving– and disturbing– experience. The jaw-dropping aspect of this experience, though, was seeing the remains of slave cabins, which still dot the land. The plantation home, at that time, was owned by a man with no ties to the slaveholder(s). He was not at home the first time we stopped along the road to view his property, but on a subsequent visit he was there, and to our surprise, he gave us permission to walk on the grounds and take pictures. He instructed his groundskeeper to show us the interior of the slave cabins that weren’t too dangerous to enter. After all these years, most of the cabins were falling apart, as one would expect. The experience was surreal.

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Learning from Others

Early on, I spent an inordinate amount of time reading about how others traced their roots, but it was time well spent. In October 1994, I attended a talk and book-signing in Atlanta. The speaker and author was Del Alexa Egan Jupiter, a fascinating woman whose search took her to her family’s beginnings in Spanish West Florida. Her ancestors were European and African. (Genealogy presents opportunities for forays into geography as well as history.) Jupiter’s book is titled, Agustina of Spanish West Florida, which she said she wrote primarily for the use of her family.

I can’t stress enough the importance of talking to our elders: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, while they still remember events and places and people from the past.


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The Haley Effect

Alex Haley’s Roots was riveting, and I know it lit a fire under a lot of budding genealogists. One writer who says she was inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author was Dorothy Spruill Redford, author of Somerset Homecoming. In fact, Haley wrote the introduction for her book, published in 1988. Redford says her search for her ancestors culminated in the discovery of “over two-thousand descendants of the slaves who worked and lived at Somerset Place, an antebellum plantation in Washington County, North Carolina.”

Redford says her journey into the past took 10 years. For others, it will take much longer. For some, the journey may continue indefinitely…

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Let’s get started!

I have not always been a history buff. Oh, I got A’s and B’s in history in school, but my heart just wasn’t in it. The groundbreaking television series, “Roots,” was riveting. It opened my eyes and piqued my interest in my roots, but my search didn’t start until AFTER my family’s first reunion, when I realized no one else was doing it. I’ve learned a few things since then.

This is my first blog, and I have a lot to say, so let’s get started…

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