April 4, 2012

Surprises In The 1940 Census

About 20 years ago, my sister Theresa took it upon herself to become our official family genealogist. She had so many questions about our family history, questions that no one could answer. Much to my delight, she has uncovered a vast treasury of hitherto-unknown ancestors and cousins, both living and dead. Would you believe that I had a cousin who lived just down the street from me in the San Fernando Valley? Yep, it's just like they say on those TV commercials for Ancestry.com. I was more than happy to hear the periodic reports with new discoveries, yet I had absolutely no interest in contributing to the effort.

Until now.

As you may be aware, the Census Bureau has just released the records from the 1940 census. It's all available online, for all to see. Just for kicks, I wondered, could I find my father in there? He would have been nine or ten years old (depending on the date of the survey), and I considered it a challenge.

Let's see...State of California...County of Los Angeles...City of Los Angeles...Los Angeles Township (whatever that was)...State Assembly District 56...Block 23...Enumeration District 60-89...dwelling at 1168 N. Commonwealth Avenue. Yup, that's the one.

This particular survey was conducted on April 25, by one Vincent Herron.  I call your attention to line 25 on the "Population Schedule" below:

Dad's house was the 341st home that Mr. Herron visited in that neighborhood. The "O" means they owned the house (as opposed to renting). 2000 is the dollar value of the house. Hutson, Loncy is my grandfather's name, and he's the head of the household, a male Negro 50 years of age. (The zero in-between, added later, is an unexplained code.)

Not shown in the excerpt above is that he was born in Ohio, and he lived in this same house on April 1, 1935. (What they do with that last bit of info, I don't know.) He owned a business making fertilizer, and worked at it for 52 weeks in 1939. The space for "income" is left blank, but most of the people in his neighborhood reported less than $1,000.

My grandmother is identified by her middle name, Gladys. (Her first name was Donnie.) She worked 26 weeks as a nurse (that's news to me), and earned $300. Finally it lists their children in the order of their birth, Loncy, Jr. (my father), and his brother Rodney. (Again, a middle name; his first name was Donald.)  Not listed are Clifford and Sharon, who followed in later years.

I lived most of my youth just up the street, at 1206. Nana called it "the old Spencer place," because she knew the previous owners. Well, sure enough, the Spencers indeed lived there in 1940.

While I enjoyed the suspense of the search, this census form didn't tell me much about my family that I didn't already know. The things that struck me most, are the things I observed along the way. For example:

For some reason, I was amused by the vocations listed by our neighbors: maid, streetcar mechanic, model, gas station attendant, bowling alley pinsetter, stenographer, shirt finisher, clerk typist, doorman, saleslady, furrier, elevator operator, seamstress, paperhanger, houseman, beauty operator, labeler, newsboy, bill poster, and something called "makes souvenirs." 

I observed the seemingly random route that some of the "enumerators" walked on their appointed rounds. They would survey one city block, stop, then resume their task two blocks away.

Finally, a historical note that makes me cringe. On the 32 pages that constitute Enumeration District 60-89, I found hundreds of Japanese names: Kodama, Nakajima, Fujita, Suzukida, Yamada, Ishimoto, Matsumura, on and on, on almost every page. By the time I showed up 22 years later, there were very few left. What happened?

Oh, yes. There was a war. Thousands of Japanese citizens, particularly in California, were hauled off to the concentration camps. Certainly, some thought, they were cheering for the other side. My aunt tells me that some of the black and Latino neighbors volunteered to watch over their homes and tend their gardens, lest they be abandoned and fall into disrepair. Still, some lost their property entirely and never returned.

Funny thing, I never enjoyed history class in school. It all seemed so irrelevant to my life. As of today, I'm convinced that one look at the 1940 census would have shocked me back to my senses.

No comments:

Post a Comment