I first fell in love with Census data when my mother and I embarked on a genealogy project in the Fall of 2002. With dial-up internet, I began searching for ancestry.com entries and clicking through to see the actual images of the Census pages. Sometimes the “old timey” penmanship was a bit of a challenge, but the stories revealed were fascinating.
Once clicking through, I discovered that my ancestor lived on a street in Holly Springs, MS in 1870, down the street was a rooming house where all the residents were immigrants. Her neighbors were Scottish, Irish, Russian, and Italian. Imagine how interesting and worldly that street must have been.
In our search to find the roots of the family story about “Mr. Talbot from Boston,” who was slave-owner and father to some of my ancestor’s children, we discovered Ephraim Talbot, a druggist in Holly Springs, who had been born in MA.
He also owned a small farm in Mississippi outside of town with a few enslaved workers. So, Mr. Talbot had an accent and came periodically from Holly Springs to check on the farm. The 1850 Census shows Talbot, his wife and 2 children and his brother living in Holly Springs. The “slave schedule” does not name the enslaved people but lists them by age and gender. A 44 year old Black male, a 25 year old Black female, a 6 year old MM (mulatto male) and a 1 year old Black female.
If this 25-year-old is the woman we called Grancy, she had children by both Mr. Talbot and an enslaved partner. Family lore has it that after the Civil War, Mr. Talbot wanted Grancy and their children to come to Holly Springs and live with him as a family. Grancy refused to leave her Black children and instead raised all her children on the farm. Most importantly, all her children went to college—from enslaved to educated in one generation. That was Grancy.
On my father’s side, the Census also helped us solve a family mystery. We knew that my great grandfather left Giles County, TN, suddenly, in the dark of night, and settled in Kansas. We knew he hadn’t gone alone, but we did not know who went with him.
History tells us that Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the KKK was from Giles County. It was a dark and repressive place. History also tells us of the Exoduster movement; a man named Benjamin “Pap” Singleton told freed folks how to leave the south and head to Kansas. The Exoduster movement was so effective, Singletary was summoned to Washington, DC to testify before Congress because the movement was creating labor shortages throughout the South.
One afternoon, scrolling through the 1880 Census on microfiche at the Western Reserve Historical Society, I found my great grandfather, John Solon (JS) Harwell age 16 living in the home of his brother-in-law George Leatherman. Also, in the home was 15-year-old John Leatherman, their son.
Narcissa and her mother, Juda (who had 17 children) were pregnant at about the same time, and both named their boys John. JS was both uncle and best friend to his age-mate John.
I sent an email to my parents entitled “Eureka, I found JS in 1880” and outlined the Leatherman house.
The next morning, my father was at my door at 8 am.
“When I was 9 or 10, my father took summer classes at the University of Colorado in Denver. One morning, he said, ‘Come on, we are going to meet a relative.’
We knocked on a door in Denver and the man who opened the door looked just like my grandfather. That man was John Leatherman. I had forgotten all about him, until I read your email.”
JS Harwell and John Leatherman left Tennessee in a hurry (maybe there was a dead White man, but we haven’t been able to verify that part of the story). Following the Exoduster play book, they went to Kansas. Legend has it that JS was passing by a church and heard someone playing the clarinet, he looked through the window and saw Annie Greer.
Smooth devil that he was, he supposedly said “The Lord has told me you are to be my wife.” She fell for it and they were married November 2, 1897.
JS stayed in Kansas with Annie and John Leatherman went on to Colorado alone. By 1920, he had a big family and owned his home.
The Census gave me all this evidence to piece together the stories and legends of my family.
This fall, I applied to be a “user advocate” for the Census TOP Sprint program. In the TOP Sprints, teams of university students are challenged with finding ways to make Census data accessible and user-friendly to the public, policy makers and organizations like @Greater Bergen that try to use data to direct our programs and services.
I was assigned to a team of graduate students from Harvard, who interviewed me and other advocates to better understand what we wish we knew about our communities.
They introduced me to some data with which I was not familiar—Community Resiliency, a set of 10 indicators that help you understand how vulnerable a population is to economic, health or natural shocks.
o Income to Poverty Ratio
o Single or Zero Caregiver Household
o Communication Barrier
o Households without Full-time, Year-round Employment
o No Health Insurance
o Age 65+
o No Vehicle Access
o No Broadband Internet Access
provide so much more nuance than poverty, age, and race data, which we typically rely upon to make our “data-driven” decisions.
Recently, my team was ready for me to beta-test their project, a cool mash-up of Census data and GIS mapping software. They watched as I poked around and discovered how the tool worked and recorded my thoughts, questions, and discoveries. Many of the color-coded circles where in the communities I expected them to me. Yet others defied my “conventional wisdom.”
“14% of THIS community has 3 or more of these risk factors? Does my organization have any clients from here? I better find out.”
Twenty years ago, Ancestry.com gave me tools and access to discover the past, to provide layers, textures, and data to family legends.
Tomorrow young data scientists and designers will give us tools to understand our communities now and into the future.
I am falling in love with the Census all over again.