But the 1940 Census also shows how much the country has changed in the span of just one lifetime. In 1940, the census counted 132 million people, compared with almost 309 million in the 2010 Census. Nine in 10 Americans were white, and almost everyone else was black — though the Associated Press reported recently that African Americans were undercounted by more than 1 million in 1940. Today, the United States is multiracial: 72 percent white, 13 percent black and 5 percent Asian. Hispanics, who are 16 percent of the population and can be of any race, are the biggest ethnic minority.
The census also reflects vast changes in quality of life. In 1940, just 5 percent of adults had college degrees, compared with 28 percent today. Almost 80 percent of people living in rural areas had outdoor toilets. Less than a third had electricity, and even fewer had running water. And women earned 62 cents for every dollar men earned; after seven decades, it’s up to 74 cents.
But what sends people searching into records collected when Franklin Roosevelt was still in his second term as president is the personal, telling detail that fills in family legend.
That quest sends many people to Kensington, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints runs a Family History Center open to both Mormons and the general public doing genealogical research. On Mondays, officials close the doors to the public and turn the center over to African Americans, guided by Bernice Bennett.
On a recent Monday, a dozen people sat at computers in the ground-floor room of a church building near the golden-spired Mormon Temple beside the Beltway. The atmosphere was collegial. Whenever anyone located a census record of a long-lost relative, all activity stopped while several people jumped from their seats and rushed over to share in the telling of family tales.
Alice Hunt Lindsey found what she was looking for. Herself.
She was just 2 in 1940, the youngest of six children of Alex and Julia Hunt living in North Carolina’s Currituck County. Alex Hunt was a farmer. He told the census taker he had worked 52 weeks in the previous year. His wages were listed as zero.
Seeing her name in the census records, after siblings Virginia, William, Rudolph, Lena and Bernard, revived memories of the house, with its two bedrooms, living room, dining room and a kitchen. It was blown away by a hurricane in 1944.
“I just hoped I’d live long enough to see myself in the census,” she said. “And now I have.”
Many of the people who came to look up the 1940 Census have roots in South Carolina. Washingtonians seeking laborers and household help often advertised in the state during the Depression.
“I didn’t know I had so many relatives,” exclaimed Francis Jenkins of Colesville, looking at a census page from Kershaw County in South Carolina.
She is the person in her family who pastes photos into albums and brings them to reunions. She teaches census genealogy classes at Kiwanis meetings.
Jenkins advises people to start asking their relatives questions before it’s too late. “Every day you wait, it’s going to be harder. As the elder generation dies out, you lose the memories.”