A few days ago, the federal government released the data from the 1940 census. The large-scale data — population amounts and aggregations of — have been available for years, but due to a federal law restricting the release of personally identifying information for 72 years, the specifics of the census were kept confidential until now. When I saw that this information had been made public, I decided to dig into Macon’s past and catch a glimpse of the city as it once was.
One thing that surprised me about the census was how much information the pages gave you. You could see a person’s race, state of birth, level of education, job, family members and even annual salary, and while this is only superficial information, it still gives a picture of the people living there at the time. It is, at the very least, enough to give you a mental picture of the family and their place in the community.
I noticed small changes. Manufacturing jobs were bigger. People seemed able to support families in nice neighborhoods off of blue collar work. There was less hopping between states. People tended to stick to their birthplaces. Families stayed together longer. It wasn’t uncommon to see a 27 year-old woman work full time as a stenographer and still live at home with her family. It must have been a pain for their dating lives, but I’m sure rent was easier. These differences point towards how culture has changed over the past 72 years. American society has become more mobile, modern and technologically driven.
One of the first things I did was look up my current address, just to see what it was like all those years ago. It wasn’t particularly easy, as the system is pretty unwieldy, but I digress. I live in one of those old houses on College that’s been cut up into apartments, and about 13 people live here now. I’d always wondered when this beautiful old home was cut up into slices. Apparently the answer is well after 1940; just two people lived in this large house back then: Robert Barnett (30), and his wife Mildred (27). They rented the house (the whole house!) for 35 dollars a month. For the record, my roommates and I pay about 20 times that for four rooms. Even in 1940 dollars, that seems like it’s quite a bargain. Robert was a high-school dropout and the vice-president of a factory. Mildred didn’t work, but she finished her senior year of school.
I wanted to know more about these two, so I signed up for Ancestry.com, began a free trial, and plugged in the few bits of information I knew about them. Robert was born to factory-worker and South Carolina native William O’Barnett in 1910. He died in 1988, still living in Macon. Really, that’s about all the information I could find on him. I have less on Mildred.
I found other interesting stories as well. I saw a trio of elderly, college-educated sisters that lived across the street from me. A pair of Russian immigrants on Magnolia appear to have co-owned a jewelry store with a nearby native Georgian. One family, that of WF and Susie Johnson, seems to have been full of travelers. They were born in the north, and two of their kids were born in differing states: Washington and Colorado. He was a weather man; she sold dresses.
However, these are the fun stories. The ones that allow you to imagine the nice lives these people must have led. They all had nice (or at least nice-sounding) jobs and lived in comfortable areas of the city. Most importantly, though, they were all white. See, the data revealed a far uglier picture for Macon’s African American citizens (I could only find information on black and white citizens. Native American, Asian, and Hispanic Maconites weren’t living anywhere I read about). For starters, under the race section, African Americans were officially listed as “negro.”
Moving beyond that, the city was shockingly segregated. I know the city is in many ways split up by race now, but it was much more severe in 1940. Neighborhoods were either entirely white or entirely black. I’m not exaggerating. The only records I could find of intermingling between the races was for live-in maids and a young black couple that lived in the “rear house” of an apartment building on College. Sorry, Willie and Addie Ingram.
Jobs were another sharp divider between whites and blacks. There was a large variety of jobs available for whites, with many opportunities for workers of every class. White citizens at the time could be shop owners, journalists, railroad conductors and factory owners. Nothing was off-limits for them. Looking at the black population, however, revealed a far more limited selection of careers. Almost without exception, blacks were cooks, maids, manual laborers (mostly for the WPA) and shoe shiners. There are no black editors, engineers, or architects. These fields are exclusively white. Occasionally, you’ll see a few black teachers, an embalmer, or a musician, but by and large, they are laborers and maids.
It was highly uncommon to see African Americans that moved from their place of birth. Occasionally, you’d see a few African Americans that previously lived in Kentucky, Alabama, or the Carolinas, but it was exceedingly rare to see anything further from Georgia. In fact, I noticed exactly one black man originally from the north in my entire time perusing the records.
All of these facts paint a bleak picture of the social opportunities given to blacks at the time. They were expected to work demeaning jobs, live separated from other parts of society, and never relocate to greener pastures. I know we read about segregation and the treatments of blacks in this era all the time, but it’s one thing to hear about it in the abstract, but quite another to browse over the lives of hundreds of socially and economically oppressed people and see exactly how few opportunities they were given in life. Blacks at the time were second-class citizens in all respects. It’s shocking and sickening, to be frank.
I know this isn’t new knowledge to anyone, but I don’t think that makes it any less relevant or worth exploring. So, if you have the time over the next few days, check out 1940census.archives.gov. See who used to live in your neighborhood. Check out their job titles and family names. Imagine the interesting lives they led. Maybe see if you had family nearby. But while you’re doing it, be sure to note the stark contrast in the lives of Macon’s black and white citizens, and be glad it’s not 1940 anymore.