Comparing the 1920 and the 1940 Census

A look at the changing categories and descriptions of race, gender, and employment through the movements of the Falker family.

Page from the 1920 Census, Village of Columbus, Luna, New Mexico (via FamilySearch)
Page from the 1940 Census, Anderson Township, Madison, Indiana (via FamilySearch)

The census seems like a straightforward, mundane bureaucratic document that reports the numbers of people living in different locales across the United States. Yet, as Julian Lim has pointed out in her study of the multiracial histories of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, census categories were never fixed and those who went door-to-door to enumerate the census (that’s how it was done prior to 1960, especially in rural areas) made decisions about a person’s racial background based on the categories they were given and their own perceptions of a person’s or family’s skin color, means of dress, perceived level of cleanliness, location and state of their home, etc. [Listen to this recent episode of NPR’s Code Switch for a discussion of racial categories and the 2020 Census].

In 1930, the decision was made to “clean up” and simplify the racial categories used in the census count. The category of “mulatto,” used between 1850 and 1920 was removed from use and the new category of “Mexican” as a racial group was added (people of Mexican heritage were formerly counted as White, as the 1920 Columbus census demonstrates). As Lim explains for the 1930 Census:

Structuring the census to reflect the racial understandings and desires of the majority white American population, U.S. officials tried to “clean” up the racial lines around whiteness, endorsing the “one-drop rule” and collapsing any mixing with blackness into “Negro,” while expelling and creating a whole new category for Mexicans. By 1930, all suggestions of race mixing were officially erased. (p. 5)

Her ideas come, in part, from Political Scientist Melissa Nobles, who argues in her comparative study of the U.S. and Brazilian Census that census records don’t merely report the racial composition of a population, they play an active role in creating racial categorizations and differences. This is true because race is not an immutable biological reality, but a social and historical construction, meaning that race isn’t something that simply exists and just needs to be counted. Instead, as indicated above, people make decisions about their own race and that of others through lived experiences and observations.

As I read through the 1920 census count for Columbus and located the Falker family, I started searching for them in other places. By 1940, they lived in Anderson Township, Indiana, and the entire family was counted together (because, I believe, Isom, Sr., was no longer active in the military). So, I was able to find evidence that there wasn’t a large number of black families in Columbus in 1920 headed by women without husbands, but that the men enlisted in the 24th Infantry weren’t counted in the census.

I also noticed major differences in terms of the categories and information gathered by the two census counts. Below, are the categories of information gathered at the 1920 census in Columbus (zoomed-in and broken into sections):

Here’s the same for the 1940 census, enumerated in Anderson Township, Indiana:

The 1940 census asks for much more detail and provides categories for the person’s relationship to the head of household, specific categories for the person’s level of education, a categorical breakdown of the person’s employment status and income, etc. It actually asks for less information about a person’s citizenship (are you a citizen or not, rather than when did you immigrate, did you naturalize, if so when?).

Interestingly, the Personal Description section is nearly identical in both. Yet, the ways that that information was listed had changed.

For example, here are some close-up screenshots of the information for the Falker family (the screenshots are in the same “chunks” as those above):

For 1920:

For 1940:

In 1940, Isom Falker is listed as the head of household whereas Lucy, his wife, was listed as the head in the 1920 census and Isom, Sr.’s name wasn’t listed. In both, Lucy is listed as Married (M).

For “Color or Race,” the family is listed as Negro (Neg.) in 1940, whereas they had been listed as Black (B) in 1920. In the 1920 enumeration, only W (White) or B (Black) were used in Columbus, with one exception that I found (a M for Mulatto). The term had switched from Black to Negro in 1940 to reflect more common usages of racialized terms.

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Brandon Morgan

Brandon Morgan

CC History Instructor, father of three, and researcher of the Borderlands, U.S. West, and Modern Mexico. Working on a book about Violence and the rural border.