The first post-World War II census had arrived, amid the dawn of the baby boom. The momentum of the Great Migration, where Black residents departed the Jim Crow South for cities like Detroit and Chicago, surged onward. Simultaneously, several industrial cities had peaked in population before Americans migrated to suburban areas.
Commencing this Friday, genealogists and historians will gain a minutely detailed perspective on these sweeping historical currents as individual records of 151 million individuals from the 1950 census are unveiled.
These records are deemed a treasure trove by researchers, and enthusiastic amateur genealogists perceive them as a means to bridge gaps in family histories. This field of study has undergone remarkable expansion in recent years, partly due to the popularity of home DNA testing kits.
“This is genealogy heaven when a census is rolled out,” enthused Matt Menashes, the executive director of the National Genealogical Society. “People are waiting anxiously. It’s hard to overstate.”
For privacy reasons, records containing individuals’ names cannot be publicized until 72 years after they have been collected during the decennial U.S. population count. The 1940 records were released a decade ago.
Wendy Kalman, an amateur genealogist based in Atlanta, anticipates the 1950 records will help consolidate her understanding of her parents, grandparents, and extended relatives. Having traced her paternal lineage to 18th century Ukraine, her research has led her to previously undiscovered third and fourth cousins with whom she now regularly communicates.
“It’s an interesting journey to find out where you are from and the census records help you find information that isn’t always available,” shared Kalman, 55. “Family stories aren’t always passed down and the census records give you a snapshot in time. It helps put together a picture.”
Ronnie Willis’ ancestors from both sides of his grandparents’ families were migratory farmers who traversed Texas and Oklahoma as a blended group during the 1930s and 1940s. However, they formed nuclear family units after World War II. Willis hopes that the 1950 census records will aid in reconstructing the trajectories of relatives who settled in other states.
“That will help get me 10 years closer to putting the puzzle together, a little bit,” said Willis, 53, a software company executive residing in Greenville, South Carolina.
The National Archives and Records Administration will release the records on a searchable website. These digitized handwritten forms include information about household members’ names, race, gender, age, address, occupations, working hours in the preceding week, earnings, education levels, marital status, and the birth country of their parents. The website will also feature a tool for users to rectify incorrect names or add missing ones.
Claire Kluskens, a digital projects archivist at the National Archives, acknowledged that what will be available on the website starting Friday is “a first draft,” where specific individuals are likely to be initially located by searching for the head of their household.
Two external genealogical organizations, Ancestry and FamilySearch, a branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have collaborated to serve as a quality check on the records by constructing their own index independently from the National Archives.
At Ancestry, numerous workers are poised to begin downloading the over 6.5 million digital images of census files at 12:01 a.m. EDT on Friday. The Utah-based company will scan the multitude of surveys, utilizing artificial intelligence to decipher untidy handwriting and convert the information into a comprehensible database format.
“We are so excited to dive into the census,” declared Crista Cowan, the corporate genealogist at Ancestry.
Between 400,000 and 800,000 volunteers across the U.S., under the coordination of FamilySearch, will subsequently cross-check the entries with the actual digital images. If the digital record of the 1950 census form reads “Wilhelmina” but has been entered as “William” in the index, this will be rectified, affirmed David Rencher, director of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and FamilySearch’s chief genealogy officer.
This endeavor might span from six to nine months, he estimated.
“We believe we will get better accuracy because we are having humans look at it,” Rencher asserted.
This new data will fill out the contours of a vastly different world. In 1950, the U.S. housed less than half of the 332 million residents it has today. Households were more extensive, averaging 3.5 individuals, in contrast to the 2.6 individuals per household in 2019. Sole occupants comprised only 9% of households in 1950, compared to 28% in 2019. Adults were also more prone to marriage, with over two-thirds of adult men and women married in 1950, compared to less than half of their counterparts in 2019, noted Marc Perry, a senior demographer at the Census Bureau.
Elaine Powell is eagerly anticipating this release, as it’s the first instance in which she’ll encounter herself in the census records. As the president of the Central Florida Genealogical Society, she was born in 1946 and raised in the St. Louis area.
“It’s just exciting. I remember the first time I found my parents in the census, you could hear me whooping and hollering in the library,” Powell shared. “It corroborates what you’ve been told by your parents and grandparents.”
Furthermore, it can rectify the record left by family tales. As Powell aptly noted, “Genealogy, without documentation, is simply mythology.”