Guide To Finding Your Black Family On The 1940 U.S. Census
Simply knowing the town where your ancestors lived may not be enough
Hughes. Battles. Moore. Youngblood. Harper…
I didn’t find my grandfather, George Gray Murray, in the 1940 U.S. Census documents associated with Forest, Miss., which I scrolled through electronically, hoping to stumble upon his name and the names of his seven siblings.
My grandfather would have been around age 19 at the time of that census and had likely moved out of his parents’ home, my mother suggested. She didn’t know for sure.
After eyeing what seemed like thousands of names on more than 100 pages for the rural Mississippi town, I realized just how specific I had to be to find my relatives. An instructional video produced by the National Archives – which made the census records public on Monday -- stresses the importance of knowing (or finding) the exact “enumerated district number,” or ED, for the city, town or nook my family may have been counted in.
But there are other things to consider -- things that are specific to the experience of African Americans, during that period in time.
My grandfather may not have been in Forest at all in 1940. As a young man, he worked in a Mississippi shipyard on the Gulf Coast. That's where the jobs were. If I were going to find him, he’d likely be in Pascagoula with his lifelong friend and then-roommate Willie Wigham. Five years later, he’d marry my grandmother, Lottie Belle Lawrence.
In my first attempt at viewing the census, I didn’t go away completely empty-handed. More on that later…
Here’s a list of five things you should know before you search for your family:
1. Find the enumerated district number(s) of the town your family lived in.
In the Archives’ instructional video, a rather nice woman advises searching their website for the ED. As much as I claim to be an experienced journalist, I could not find where on their website to do the search. Through Google, I stumbled upon Stephen Morse’s and Joel Weintraub’s “Unified 1940 Census ED Finder.” They’ve scripted a form that asks for the state, county and city or town you’re looking for. My search yielded four ED numbers. It was quick.
2. Know your relatives’ government names, not their nicknames or middle names.
If great-great-grandpa Ray was legally “Reginald Ray Jenkins,” then you’ve got to look for Reginald as the “head” of the household. If he was a man of color, he’s likely listed as “neg,” short for Negro. Whites are listed as “W.” Lots of colored men were listed as laborers, I found in my Mississippi search. Some women were listed as housewives or laundresses, and others were listed as servants with white families.
3. Know about the makeup of your relatives’ household.
There may be a lot of families with the same last name, in the same town, and even on the same residential block. Know if your relatives had children, how many they had, and what their names were. As I mentioned before, if the children were in their late teens, particularly males, they may have already moved out of the home at census time. That will prevent you from misidentifying some other “Smith” family.
4. Consider history in your search.
There’s a chance that, even though they were born in the area for which you’ve pulled up documents, they may not have been counted in the 1940’s census. By the late 1930’s, the first Great Migration – movement of African American families from southern states to states north and west – was well underway. Census workers went home-to-home to conduct the count, and scribbled data on the very documents that you’ll find in your search. If your family was on its way out of the south, even in the few years prior to 1940, there’s a chance they were not counted there. Know what year your family migrated, if they did. My grandfather didn’t leave Mississippi for another 12 years, after the census.
5. Save the census document image and pass the information on.
The great thing about knowing your ancestry is being able to account for our family’s whereabouts and experiences, in many of America’s historic flashpoints. In a previous column, titled “Who Do You Think You Are,” I wrote about my grandfather’s experience casting a vote in the 1940's, a very racially hostile time in Mississippi. This is information that we should all want to pass along to family members younger than us.
I mentioned before that I didn’t go away completely empty-handed in my first search. I located the document that show my grandfather’s uncle, Willie Murray, and his wife, Hattie.
My grandfather's Aunt Hattie lived to be 106-years-old, and was present at a family reunion in 2006. She and my now 90-year-old grandfather were reunited at that gathering. My grandfather hadn’t seen Hattie in 50 years.
According to the 1940 census records, Hattie was 30-years-old when she was counted. Under occupation, she’s listed as a laundress. She and Willie, who was 28, did not have any children.
Hattie passed away last year.