Census records from 1950 could solve some family mysteries

Apr 1, 2022, 10:36 AM | Updated: 10:49 am

Elaine Powell set her alarm and jumped on her computer just after midnight so she could find the first time she appeared in the U.S. population count — information she had to wait more than seven decades to see.

Powell, who was born in 1946, found her name recorded at a St. Louis address early Friday, shortly after the federal archives released digitized individual records of 151 million people from the 1950 census. But that was just the beginning. She’s now hoping the records will help her track down information about a great-grandmother she never knew.

“When you’re a family historian or genealogist, it’s all about the census,” said Powell, president of the Central Florida Genealogical Society.

For privacy reasons, records identifying people by name can’t be made public until 72 years after they are gathered during the once-a-decade U.S. head count. The 72-year rule was part of a 1952 agreement between the archivist of the U.S. at the time and the Census Bureau director at the time, but no one seems to know how they settled on that number.

The digitized records have information about household members’ names, race, sex, age, address, occupations, hours worked in the previous week, salaries, education levels, marital status, where they were born, as well as where their parents were born. With the help of artificial intelligence technology that scanned and deciphered the handwritten records, the National Archives has indexed them into a searchable database.

Officials acknowledge that what is on the website starting Friday is “a first draft,” in which specific people are most likely to be found initially only by searching for whoever was listed as the head of their household. For instance, if former President George W. Bush wanted to find information about his West Texas home in 1950, he would have to start by searching under the name of his father, former President George Herbert Walker Bush.

The website will include a tool allowing users to fix any incorrect names or add missing names.

“This is an opportunity for you to refine and enhance … names and make the population schedules more accessible for everyone,” said U.S. Archivist David Ferriero.

Two outside genealogical groups, Ancestry and FamilySearch, a division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are teaming up to serve as a quality check on the records by creating their own index separate from the National Archives. Anywhere from 400,000 to 800,000 volunteers across the U.S., under the coordination of FamilySearch, will double-check the entries that have been scanned and indexed with the actual digital images.

Now that the records have been made public, Powell said she hopes to learn about a great-grandmother about whom she only recently was told had been alive up until Powell was around age 10. They never met because the great-grandmother, who had dementia, was kept hidden at home from other relatives.

“I’m most anxious to find out about my great-grandmother,” Powell said.


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Census records from 1950 could solve some family mysteries