Bennett found what she was looking for on a digitalized image of the original census ledger, scanned from more than 4,000 rolls of microfilm.
There was the name of Willie Mary Frazier, her father’s cousin and a key player in Bennett family history. Frazier introduced Bennett’s parents to each other. The census taker noted that Frazier worked as a maid in a private home and lived in a boardinghouse at 402 P St. NW. All the lodgers in the house were black laborers from rural South Carolina who had moved to Washington during the Depression.
“I’m going to go to the house on P Street and take a picture,” vowed Bennett, a retired public health worker from Silver Spring.
The 1940 Census ledgers are being made public now because census records must remain confidential for 72 years — a stretch mandated by law at a time when seven decades was assumed to be a normal life span. The release is generating excitement among historians, genealogists and that one person at all family reunions who keeps track of every branch of relatives. And, thanks to technology, the information will be more accessible, more quickly, than that from any previous census.
Interest in the decades-old census has been high since it was made public last month, but only the most die-hard researchers can find what they’re looking for.
For the time being, much of the 1940 Census is in hard-to-search handwritten pages created by census takers in the days before printed forms were mailed out. The enumerators visited homes and asked residents questions such as where they were living five years earlier, and how much they had worked in the previous year. (For those with jobs, the answer was often: 52 weeks). To find the records of a specific person, it’s necessary to know his or her address at the time and a bureaucratic geography known as the enumeration district.
Eventually, the records will be more readily available.
More than 100,000 volunteers across the country, many of them genealogy buffs, are indexing the information from the ledger
pages so it can be put up on a number of genealogical Web sites sponsoring the1940 Census Community Project. When the tabulation is done, it will be possible to locate people by their names alone. Records for six states, including Virginia, are indexed and available for searching, while Maryland and the District will be completed this summer.
But many people already are combing through the records, discovering a time remarkably like our own, scarred by economic upheaval that cost many people their jobs and their homes, and experiencing a wave of immigration — back then because people were fleeing Europe as World War II spread and deepened.