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National Archives to release 1940 census documents

The world is about to get a glimpse of what America looked like during its transition from the Great Depression, to World War II.

The National Archives and Records Administration is just over a month away from the unsealing of 1940 census documents, which will be opened to the public on April 2, at 9 a.m., and will immediately be available on the National Archives web site, www.archives.gov/.

Once the records become available to the public, it will be somewhat like the opening of a time capsule that has been sealed for 72 years. “It’s been more than 70 years since these documents were sealed,” said Mary Evelyn Tomlin, public programs specialist for the Morrow-based National Archives at Atlanta. “They [the U.S. Census Bureau] release statistics about the population shortly after the census is taken, but by law, the actual census documents have to be sealed for 72 years.

“The law says they have to be sealed for that long, to protect the privacy of people who were alive when the census was taken.”

People interested in digging into the yet-to-be-released documents will soon be able to learn how to use these records. The National Archives is set to hold a free workshop on March 24, beginning at 10 a.m., to teach people how to search the 1940 census records. The workshop will be held at the archives, which is located at 5780 Jonesboro Road, in Morrow.

Tomlin said there were some changes to how information was filed at the time the census was taken. A key change that researchers will see in the records is that they will have to search for people by enumeration district, rather then by their name.

Historians and genealogists are eagerly anticipating the opening of the documents, according to the National Archives’ programs specialist. That is largely because it should give them a snap shot of an America that was finally emerging from the financial hardships of the Great Depression.

“This was the first census to be conducted after the Great Depression, when people had little, to no money, and they didn’t always have a place to live, and they had to beg for food,” she said. “So, that fact colored a lot of the questions people were asked on the census forms. It’s going to tell us a lot about life during the 1930’s.”

In 1940, the nation was caught between two extremes. It was finally moving past the point of people living in “Hoovervilles,” and asking brothers if they could spare a dime. At the same time, the country’s involvement in another World War was just around the corner. Americans were about to be introduced to the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” of Company B.

The records are expected to show where people lived, what they did for a living, and how they got through the later years of the Depression, according to Tomlin.

“I’ve been getting phone calls all day [Wednesday] from people who can’t wait for these records to become available,” she said.

One change on the 1940 census is that it was the first census since the 1870’s where people were not asked if they were a veteran of the Civil War, Tomlin said.

By that point, the country was 80 years removed from the start of the “War Between the States.” Any remaining veterans of the Civil War would have likely been in their 90’s, or already past the age of 100, at that point.

“It does ask if someone was a veteran of World War I, and there were other wars listed as well, but the Civil War was not one of them,” Tomlin said.

People eager to dive into the 1940 census will get one other special treat. Tomlin said that, although the National Archives is normally closed to the public on Mondays, it will open its doors on April 2 — which is a Monday — to anyone who wants to begin searching the census documents right away.

“We’ll have some food out, and some 1940’s music playing, and we will be open to help people who weren’t able to make it to the workshop,” the programs specialist said.

The National Archives has announced that people can follow updates of the release of the census records by following the archives on www.1940census.archives.gov/, or on several social media web sites, including Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, and YouTube. People can also track updates on the social media web site, Twitter, by using the hashtag “#1940Census”.

Call (770) 968-2555, for more information on local activities related to the release of the census records.