In honor of the 1950 census records release, let’s talk about the history of the census. 

The first United States Census was taken in the year 1790.  Every 10 years since the U.S. Bureau of Commerce has conducted a census, collecting the population data of the country.  The census collects data such as names, gender, addresses, age, occupation, education level, income, and race.  The census is a very important survey of the American people as the results can impact the number of seats a state has in the House of Representatives and the number of funds a state can receive from the federal government. The social construct of race has been used to categorize and identify people for centuries. However, the terms that are used to describe race have evolved over the years.  

This is going to be looking at the change in language to describe race specifically in the U.S. census.  

As many of us who have done some research know, census records can be an important piece in solving the puzzle that is a family tree. While reading census records, it is important to understand the context around the information.  Before 1950, census takers were the only people who filled out a census.  When it came to filling out the race portion of the census there were very few options for a very long time.  Due to this fact it is important to understand why as you go through different years of the census there may be inconsistencies with a person’s race.  

W. Kamau Bell looks at how the census impacts how the government and society at large impact how different ethnic groups are defined in an episode of his show, United Shades of America.

Evolution of Race Labels

In 1790 the only options for race on the census were as follows: Free white males, free white females, all other free persons, slaves. As of the 2020 census, there are 7 categories with multiple subcategories.  The 2000 census was the first one where multi-racial people could accurately list their race.  

To see a full breakdown of the race categories over time, go to:

How These Labels Affect Genealogy Research

By understanding the context of these labels and their evolution of them in archival documents, it allows you to have a deeper understanding and make better inferences within your research.  By understanding the difference in an ancestor being labeled as negro for the first 2 censuses they show up on but them being labeled as white in future censuses can make it hard to track them.  

The reasoning behind why these cases exist delves into a societal/cultural phenomenon known as passing for white or “passing”. During the early 1900s if light-skinned black people wanted to attain better jobs and less discrimination they would create a new life, usually after a move to a new area, and tell people they were white. It is a very nuanced topic because on the one hand it was used as a means of survival. However many parents took the secret of their blackness to the grave. So there are many families that in very recent generations have begun to learn about distant relatives who passed for white and the children and grandchildren of those who passed have no idea of their African American ancestry and have little to no connection to that part of their history. However, the Black relatives that are left behind are left to deal with the hurt and distance between those who chose to pass and may even hold some resentment for the new life they created.  

The documentary series, Passing by Robin Cloud, is an excellent portrayal of the impact that a relative’s choice to pass can have on their descendants (link below).  

Also, a recent Netflix film, Passing, based on the Nella Larsen novel of the same name, depicts the impact of one’s secret being revealed back in the early 1900s. 

I could probably write a whole research paper on this topic but for more information and resources regarding this topic, you can visit the following sites:

The United Shades of America Season 6 Episode 6: Color of America on HBOMax, Amazon, YouTube TV, and Apple TV

As we celebrate this new vast chunk of records that is now available, take some time to look a little deeper into the social, societal, and historical subtext of these archives.