At the Family History Center in Kensington, Bernice Bennett, left, and Angela Martin, members of a genealogical group, react after finding relatives of Martin’s in a search involving DNA. The group also is using newly released 1940 Census records. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

A small clue to Bernice Bennett’s past leapt out at her from the computer screen, on a scanned ledger filled with addresses entered with the precision penmanship that is a lost art.

It was 72 years ago that census workers fanned out across the country, visiting houses to personally count the 132 million people living in the United States in 1940. And now the National Archives has opened up the once-confidential details of daily life in a nation living in the vise of economic collapse and impending war.

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.

“You get a sense of how mobile people were, and of people moving around, trying to make a go of it and get work,” said David Rencher, the chief genealogical officer for the Family History Museum in Salt Lake City. The museum is run by the Mormon Church.

“You see an era of economic downturn,” he said. “You see the war effort. There are a number of parallels that are spot-on with today.”

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.”