Census data release helps many to discover where they came from
By Rex Rutkoski
Published: Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 9:28 a.m.
It's those three little words that always make Joyce Broadus smile.
Whenever someone doing research in the computer area exclaims “I found them!” the manager of the Hill District branch of Carnegie Library doesn't even have to ask.
She knows another person has made a connection to his or her past, which merits an expression of joy.
“People like knowing the stories of who they are,” Broadus says.
She is pleased that the National Archive's historic and much-anticipated April release of the complete 1940 U.S. Federal Census, the first to be available to the public on the Internet, rather than on microfilm, enables even more to learn those stories.
Beyond the hunger for connection is the fact that the information is more accessible than at any other time in our history.
“You can do some of this from home or the library and connect in a way you were never able to before,” Broadus says. “Family elders want to make sure the younger generations know where they came from and who they are, so they are putting together as much information as they can.”
In the first three hours of its online release April 2, so many people — 22.5 million — logged on that it temporarily paralyzed the system.
After being kept confidential for 72 years, as required by privacy laws, new personal details from the 1940 census, which covers the 1930s, allows anyone to delve deep into their family's roots and to open a new window on one of America's most challenging and defining eras as the country was recovering from the Great Depression and before its entry into World War II.
Now available for free are names, addresses, ages, birthplaces, citizenship, martial status, number of children, home ownership and the relation of each person in the household, employment, earnings and, for the first time on a census, where they lived five years earlier, which provides a vehicle for tracking mobility.
Every name is now searchable for free, without having to know an address or census district, both on ancestry.com and, thanks to volunteer efforts of groups such as North Hills Genealogists, in record time on FamilySearch.org.
The North Hills group held a public search program of any era at Northland Public Library in September. “The most popular resource that night was the 1940 census,” says member Mary Dzurichko of North Hills Genealogists.
For some, the fresh details serve as confirmation of what they already surmised about those who came before them; for others, like Broadus, surprises await.
“I found in the 1940 census that my mother and grandmother lived about two blocks away from my father and his mother when they were growing up,” she says.
Beverly Bowser of Freeport says she knew “next to nothing” about her late mother Goldie Lowers' early years, and this census, as well as other sources, has been motivation to try to catch up on some of those lost chapters.
An Ohio native, Lowers lived in Arnold and the Garver's Ferry section of Allegheny Township, where Bowser was born when her mother was 40.
Bowser learned that the late Glenn Richard Nelson of Portsmouth, Ohio, known to the baseball world as Rocky Nelson, was her mother's half-brother. Nelson, who played for the Dodgers, Cardinals, Indians and Pirates, helped the 1960 Pirates beat the Yankees in the World Series — an accomplishment celebrated this weekend at the Forbes Field wall in Oakland — with a two-run homer in the first inning of the memorable game seven.
“I'm excited to find out some things about my parents. I knew zero about my mother, and then it was too late to ask her,” says Bowser. Her father, George Burton “Bert” Lowers, died at 72.
“There were seven in my family,” she says. “They have left me with very happy memories, but I wish I knew more.”
Larry Thompson, a Pittsburgh native and former Imperial resident, now of Luzerne County, found that his great-grandfather had a second family “that nobody seemed to be aware of.” Thompson actively participates in the mailing list of Allegheny County genealogists, helping people do searches. “The feeling of finding someone is like hitting the lottery. It is exhilarating” he says.
Unlike more recent censuses, the 1940 population count was taken entirely by census enumerators going door to door and collecting information.
Bill Black, archivist and an adjunct professor at Seton Hill University, Greensburg, sees it as one of the most important census in American history. “It was at a junction when we were coming out of the Great Depression. From a historical perspective, there is just so much information you can mine,” he says.
“As we spread out all over the country and families no longer are in direct contact, we've lost that feeling of who we are in terms of family bearings,” Black says. “Knowing where you came from can really help you understand where you are now. Hopefully, you can then see where you can go.”
The 1930s was one of the most important decades in our history, in terms of how it shaped and changed America, says James Paharik of Unity Township, author and veteran professor of sociology at Seton Hill. That is why this census is a very valuable resource, he says.
“The '30s, in a lot of ways, was like the period we have just gone through. Thank goodness our recession wasn't as deep as the Depression, but there are a lot of parallels, including high-end unemployment and the government looking around to what they can do to make things better.”
His father graduated from high school in the mid-1930s, and the only way he was able to find work was with the Civilian Conservation Corps' public-works projects. “My family is from Pittsburgh, and he was assigned to work in a recreation area in the Slickville part of Westmoreland County. And here I am, living in Westmoreland County,” Paharik says. “There was a lot of migration going on in the 1930s as people looked for jobs.”
Attempting to understand what was necessary for a person or family to decide to pull up and move sometimes thousands of miles away from home, knowing that they might never return, or see their families again, is impossible to imagine, says retiree Tom Pajak of Harmony, Butler County, who, with wife Carole is finding their searches of the census quite interesting.
They share an interest in history, and Tom Pajak was a follow-up enumerator for the 2010 census.
In recent research they conducted for a sister-in-law, they discovered that one of her ancestors arrived in America before the Mayflower.
This is a way to rebuild the path of an ancestor's life as much as possible, Pajak says. Many people are still alive who were either in the 1940 census or directly knew those who were. “They are not just statistics or long-dead ancestors. I think this multiplies the interest in this census,” Pajak says.
“Every piece of information found means a great deal to our patrons,” says Marilyn Holt, head of the Pennsylvania Department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and president and program chair of the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society, headquartered in her department in Oakland.
Louise Stanzione, president of the Tarentum Genealogical Society, also works in the local history department of Community Library of Allegheny Valley, Tarentum. She finds genealogy “every bit as exciting as a good mystery book.”
Contributing to that enjoyment, she says, in addition to the 1940 census, is the release this spring of the Pennsylvania “Public” birth and death records after five years of lobbying. “These indexes make it easy to find heretofore unknown death dates of relatives,” Stanzione says.
“If there are family secrets, they are likely to come out in the census data,” says Alexis Macklin, director of the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh. The center plans a four-part genealogy workshop in early 2013 to be led by David Grinnell, reference and access archivist and coordinator of reference services at the University of Pittsburgh's Archives Service Center.
“People are very excited about the availability of the 1940 census,” says Grinnell, who is a member of the National Genealogical Society. “You can't always rely on what others have told you about your family.”
One of the most gratifying feelings for him is discovering names and details of his ancestors. “I feel very connected to them and, as a student of history, I see how even members of my own family fill in the story of America,” he says. “It assures me that I am not alone in this world, but am connected to a vast heritage of people who have come before me and shaped who I am as a person.”
Family historian Glee McKnight, 78, of Franklin Township, Butler County, shares a similar sensibility. Finding her family on the 1940 census gives her a sense of belonging, she says.
“The census speaks when I pay attention; it surprises at times,” she says. “It tells me I belong somewhere — to a family, to an extended family, a community, the human race; memories appear when I see the names of those who came before me.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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