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Femi  Lewis

1940 Census Data: A Powerful Tool for African-American Researchers

By April 2, 2012

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Early this morning a national treasure was opened: the 1940 Census .

The records of more than 130 million Americans are now available to everyone who wants to use the data--from historians and genealogical researchers to everyday Americans who want to research the history of their families.

For African-Americans such as blogger Robin Foster, of Saving Our Stories, the 1940 census is a valuable tool in documenting her family history. In a recent blog post, Foster wrote of viewing previous census records, "The excitement I feel as I pour over its pages along with the satisfaction and pride I feel as I closely inspect the family groups has not been something that I have articulated before now." In an updated blog post, Foster wondered how she would feel seeing her parent's names for the first time on the 1940 census also stating, "I have also been inspired to pay closer attention to the history and events of the 1940s.

So have I.

In April of 1940, the editorial board of The Crisis, argued that African-Americans had a "special obligation" to participate in the U.S. Census. The editorial, "Aid the Census," demands that readers fill out the census because "they [African-Americans] need the census to refute arguments that they don't own property and pay few taxes" Editorial writers ended their argument by reminding readers that "accurate answers to the questions will help the race to its proper status." Reading this editorial in The Crisis has made me wonder if African-American participation in the 1940 census did help create the wheels of change in United States' society.

I think, in time, African-American participation in the census did make a contribution to American life and culture--it was one more instance of a marginalized group insisting that they too, were part of America.

So what does the 1940 census data mean to you? How will you use the data to learn more about your personal family history or even, the history of the United States?


April 6, 2012 at 9:31 am
(1) Cynthia says:

Wow! This is useful! I never knew how important the census is until now.

April 18, 2012 at 6:33 pm
(2) Ms. Bard says:

For me, the 1940 US Federal Census is validation of stories told by my grandparents, parents and other people who were alive during that time. I love finding family members, extended family and lodgers all living together and/or in the same neighborhood.

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