You have to be of a certain age for your name to appear on the 1950 census. My name made it—just barely. Sometime in April of 1950, a census enumerator named Mildred Poldemus knocked on the door at 2120 38th Avenue North in St. Petersburg, Florida. On her carefully handwritten form, she noted the residents: James M. Porter, a twenty-five-year-old plasterer, Carol, his twenty-year-old wife, and Lizzie, his sixty-six-year-old mother. Even though James was living in his mother’s house, he—being a male—was listed as the head of the household. Also in residence that day was James and Carol’s five-month-old son whose name was listed as J. Douglas—yours truly. This is a bittersweet snapshot in time since I am the only person in that household still alive. Even the house is gone. It was demolished in the 1970s to make way for I-275.
Those 1950 Census records were released in April, exactly seventy-two years after enumerators like Mrs. Poldemus began knocking on doors. About forty-six million American houses were canvased and a little over 150 million people were counted. Those millions of census forms, painstakingly filled out by hand in ink, were just posted online by the National Archives and Records Administration, which by law has kept them private until now. Census records are confidential for seventy-two years to protect respondents’ privacy.
The word “census” is Latin in origin. The Romans were counting their citizens by around the middle of the first millennium B.C. But few if any of those counts would meet today’s definition, which is essentially to count everyone in a given place at a given time. The first census in the United States took place beginning on August 2, 1790. Although it took months to collect all the data from households.
During the 1950 census, according to the New York Times, the post-WWII baby boom was in full swing, the average family earned $3,300, and gasoline cost eighteen cents a gallon. About 140,000 census-takers, or enumerators, fanned out across the country that April. My father-in-law was one of them.
Elmer Liebert walked the Cherokee Park neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He talked of going house to house, filling out his forms as he went. If nobody was home, he had to keep going back until they were available for interview. The 1950 census was the last complete house-to-house canvas. The next census in 1960 was conducted largely by mail. I know mail-in forms are much more efficient, but it seems a shame not to do a physical headcount.
A census form is more than a statistical headcount. It is as though someone has entered every home in America and taken a snapshot in time that tells a story. When Ms. Poldemus filled out that April 1950 census form, Carol Porter was just four months out of her teens. She was coming up on the first anniversary of her graduation from St. Pete High School. My dad was just beginning his career as a plasterer. They were struggling new parents who probably didn’t know much about raising a child. They did such a good job with their four boys I always assumed it was down to their innate wisdom and superior parenting skills. But the census form suggests there may be more to it than that.
My mom always said she learned how to be a mother by living with her mother-in-law, Lizzie Porter. My Grandma Porter was born in November 1883. As a teenager she walked from Florida to Texas behind a covered wagon. She lived through two world wars and the Great Depression. She bore thirteen children and faced the burial of several of them. She told me, for example, that before the advent of baby food in jars, mothers would wean their children onto solid foods by chewing the food themselves before providing it to their babies. As a familiar insurance company television commercial says, Grandma Porter knew a thing or two because she’d seen a thing or two.
There is a widely quoted West African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”. But my research indicates that the first appearance of the proverb in print may have been in a 1984 interview with author Toni Morrison who said, “it takes a village to raise a child, not one parent, not two parents, but the whole village”.
My mom and dad had a village, and they used it. I was baptized as an infant at Allendale Methodist Church soon after I was born and was reminded of the importance of that on a recent Sunday. My current church, Albany First Methodist, honored the babies who had been born in the past year to our congregation. A half dozen families brought their infants forward and another half dozen were named but not in attendance. Those children had a lot of collective experience in the audience to help their parents raise them.
As we celebrate our parents on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, it might be useful to remember those who helped them along the way. I only saw my name on that census form because one of my sons was curious and searched the data the day after it came out. He started with his grandpa—my dad—and hit the jackpot. That same son, who lives in Kentucky, asked me to watch two of his children while he was on a business trip and my daughter-in-law was on a school trip with their middle son.
That’s how this retired grandpa found himself in Louisville, Kentucky for a week playing—and losing—endless games of Clue with his nine-year-old grandson and seeing his seventeen-year-old granddaughter off on her first date. I’m not sure how much wisdom was passed along, but it felt right that I should be there. Those children have aunts and uncles, a church family, and other grandparents. But they also have this old man who sure enjoyed his time with them and is proud to be part of their “village”.