Seventy-two years ago, someone knocked on your ancestor’s door and asked them a series of questions. Friday, all of that information will be at your fingertips.
So break out the family tree and prepare to go digging.
All of the 1950 census will be released Friday after a mandatory wait of 72 years.
Some data from the 1950 census is already available, just like we have data from every census before and since, but those are just statistics.
Friday’s data release includes free digitized access to specific individual information, said Margo Anderson, historian and census expert.
“What we get now is the physical, handwritten records,” Anderson said. “An enumerator went to 123 Main Street, and knocked on the door, and saw John Smith and his family, and then wrote down the information for each one of them on the census. It’s very important for historians, and especially for people doing their family history.”
This personal information is the reason most of this data is locked away for 72 years — the average lifespan when the law governing the release of census records was established, according to the Pew Research Center.
Although the census is just a snapshot, a moment in time, it’s useful for historians and genealogists alike.
In 1950, the United States was on the cusp of significant change. It was the beginning of transformative and modernizing years, according to the Census Bureau.
Detroit, 72 years ago
In 1950, the country was recovering from World War II and the Great Depression. Due to the booming auto industry, Detroit was seen as crucial to the nation’s economy.
“Detroit at the time was a majority white city and it was the fourth largest city in the country,” said Stephen Ward, a historian at the University of Michigan. “And because of the auto industry, it was seen as really important for the nation’s economy. … People often call Detroit ‘the arsenal of democracy’ because a lot of the auto factories were converted to war production, so they stopped making cars and started making tanks and all types of things for the war.”
The 1950 census is a big one for Detroit; the city’s population peaked at 1.8 million that year.
During the 1950s, after this census was recorded, Detroit began to suburbanize and continued to segregate. Many white residents moved to the outskirts as more Black people moved into the city. This still largely reflects metro Detroit as it is today, Ward said.
But we’ll have to wait another 10 years for the 1960 census to see that come to life.
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Find your ancestors
Experts call these censuses genealogy goldmines because of the personal information included
You’ll be able to search your ancestors by name or address, and possibly fill in gaps in your family tree.
“You were asked about the way you lived,” Anderson said. “You can tell the baby boomers were in full development in the late ’40s and ’50s, so you’ll be able to see the kids being born.”
Genealogy websites like Ancestry.com have been preparing for this census release, the Financial Times reported.
Aside from filling in the gaps, you might learn more about your family. Because every single handwritten enumeration is included, you’ll see the answers to each question your family answered.
And, in 1950, every household was asked the same questions. They ranged from questions about education, jobs and children, to whether or not they had a kitchen sink and television set.
On Friday, you’ll be able to access the released data at https://www.archives.gov/research/census/1950.
Contact Emma Stein: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @_emmastein.