Diligent genealogists will find treasure in 1940 census

Tabulators record information from enumerators who gathered data for the 1940 census. Veiled in secrecy for 72 years because of privacy protections, the 1940 census is the first historical federal decennial survey to be available on the Internet initially rather than on microfilm.

Charlie Black has seen the countdown to the 1940 federal census release for months streaming across the pages of the genealogy websites he trolls. Each time he sees a mention of it, his hope grows that it will contain answers to questions he’s had about his family for years.

It’s that way for Black, who also helps genealogists do research at the Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in West Ashley. It’s also that way for many others who are researching on the Internet around the world. Genealogists have hoped for years that the 1940 census will contain information about an ancestor that helps them to make progress in compiling their family’s history.

Like earlier federal censuses, the 1940 census has been under wraps for 72 years by law. Today at 9 a.m. the National Archives will release it. Digital images of the census with its 132 million names will be available free online, something that has never happened before.

In 1940, 120,000 census takers went door to door collecting information about the population during the Great Depression, including the dislocations and economic hardships it caused, according to the National Archives. This census will be the first to release information on African-Americans after they moved North during the 1930s.

For the first time, family historians will know who provided information to the census taker, according to the National Archives.

In addition, 1940 census respondents were asked how many school years they had completed, not just whether they could read or write. Also, two people on each page were asked 16 supplemental questions that will reveal even more about their families, including women, who can be difficult to research because fewer records were created about them.

Personally, Black wants information about a family member he could not find on the 1930 census or in other documents. The relative was a prominent member of the S.C. State University faculty. Black says he plans to search all of the census districts (called enumeration districts) in and around Orangeburg until he finds the person he is seeking.

Why not just type in the name of the ancestor and see if it comes up? You can’t. It’s not possible on the Web, for now.

That’s because this census has no name index. Volunteers, working mostly from their homes, will spend whatever time they can spare on indexing the 132 million names. They will be organized through the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project, a collaborative effort by the National Archives, FamilySearch and Findmypast.com.

Paul Nauta, FamilySearch public affairs manager, says 100,000 volunteers have signed up to index with the project since Jan. 1. FamilySearch, the genealogy arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wants an additional 100,000 to ensure a consistently high volume of active volunteers, Nauta says. They are trying to get the census indexed by the end of the year.

Locally, Black is among the volunteers Nauta is counting on, as is Pattie Rivers of James Island.

“I signed up to index with FamilySearch a couple of weeks ago,” says Rivers, who spends most of her day helping heritage organizations. “I just think as much as I use the census I should contribute to indexing the new one.”

Meanwhile, family historians can’t wait.

“The fact it will not have a name index will limit me,” says Georgetta Rivers (no relation to Pattie Rivers), who is documenting her family’s Cordesville roots. “It will take me more than three times as long to find the information on my family, but I believe it will be worth the search. There is so much to see on the census.”

Rivers is hoping the census will tell her where her grandfather, her only grandparent to survive until the census, was living.

There will be joyful moments for those able to find what they are looking for, says Marianne Cawley, manager of the South Carolina room at the Charleston County Public Library. Yet, many are not aware of what it’s going to take to find it.

“I’m going to have to tell people it’s not that easy,” says Cawley, whose department manages the genealogy resources. “A person will have to be very dedicated to knowing about their ancestors and have a lot of time in order to find information on them.”