Are You My Mother?: Searching the Census
In April 2022, the 1950 federal census was released. It was particularly exciting for many GenXers like me – the children of Baby Boomers. For the first time, I’d be able to find both of my parents in a U.S. Census.
I started by searching for my dad. And there he was, just where I thought he would be – 429 North 2nd Street, Clarendon, Monroe County, Arkansas.
Because the census hadn’t been fully indexed yet when I was searching, I had to find the enumeration district, find the street, and find the house. And there they were. In the same house they’d lived in for most of the twentieth century. The household included my dad’s older sister and brother as well as his mother, younger half sister, and maternal grandmother. And there were the neighbors, the Theriacs – Ms. Pearl and her six children.
My paternal grandmother was twice divorced and the AI indexer (or maybe it was an actual human) transcribed my grandmother’s last name (and that of her youngest daughter) as Gravan. It was really Graham. And although it clearly lists the other three children with the last name of Register, the indexer grouped the whole family together as Gravan.
Then I went in search of my mother. She was going to be more complicated. I knew she was born in Detroit, Michigan, and I knew at some point in the 1950s my grandfather built a house for them at 1834 Romeo, Ferndale, Michigan.
Hoping rather than believing it to be true, I searched for the enumeration district for this address. But in 1950, the neighborhood was either undeveloped or 1834 Romeo hadn’t been built yet. So I decided to let the indexers do their job and I’d check back in a few months.
Fast-forward July 2022…
Back to it. I opened AncestryLibraryEdition and clicked the GET STARTED button under the Welcome to the 1950 U.S. Census. I searched for John Harold Alston (my maternal grandfather) in Detroit, Michigan. And there he was.
John Alston…living with his brother Leonard, married, and working as a machine repairman in an auto parts factory. The census taker has written E something Boulevard in the margin. And the page is labeled Detroit, Wayne, Michigan. The enumerator stopped by on April 4, 1950.
But where are my grandmother, mother, and aunt?
My maternal grandmother’s name was Joan, but it was pronounced Joann. So I searched for
First Name: Joan
Last Name: Alston
I made the First Name search broad and the Born and In fields as more exact.
Your Search for Joan Alston returned zero good matches.
Okay, I thought, maybe the indexer is really off. I looked for my mother. My mother’s name is Phyllis, so I searched the 1950 Census for
First Name: Phyllis
Last Name: Alston
In: Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan
Your Search for Phyllis Alston returned zero good matches.
Phyllis was a very common name in the 1940s, as was Linda, my mother’s sister’s name. Also, Phyllis can be a challenge for people to spell. Maybe the census taker spelled it Fillis?!
Nope, no search results for that either.
Okay, let’s get even more vague! What if I searched the last name Alston with the birth year of 1947 in Detroit, Michigan?
Where is my mother?!
Family oral history says that my mother spent summers in Arkansas with her grandparents. And with a toddler and infant, maybe my grandmother was in Mulberry, Arkansas, when the census taker came by to count in Detroit.
Off to look for John Hight in Mulberry, Arkansas. And there he is.
The enumerator stopped by on April 3, 1950, and my great-grandparents John and Clyde (yes, a woman named Clyde) were home, as was their twenty-nine-year-old son, Jack. But no Joan or Phyllis or Linda.
So where are my mother, her mother, and her sister?
They aren’t with my grandfather in Michigan and they aren’t in Mulberry with my maternal great-grandparents.
Maybe my grandfather was living with his brother to save on commuting and the girls were in Ferndale, Michigan, and he’d come home on the weekends. I went in search of 1834 Romeo.
In the 1950 census, you can search locations using the 1950 Census district finder. It is a BETA version, but if you love maps, this is pretty cool. I searched for 1834 Romeo, Royal Oak, Oakland, Michigan. The address was in District 63-99. When you click on the district number, Ancestry takes you to the census pages for that district. I carefully scrolled through every page (forty-five total) of this section looking for Joan, Phyllis, or Linda.
Okay, maybe if I start from the end and go forward… I started this time on page 45 and worked my way back through the section looking at Names. Still no Joan, Phyllis, or Linda!
Was the house even there in 1950?
In the 1950 City Directory for Royal Oak and Ferndale, there is no listing for John H. Alston. And there is no city directory for Detroit in Ancestry for 1950. 1953, yes, but not 1950.
In the 1953 City Directory for Royal Oak, Michigan, John H. Alston and his wife Joan are listed at 1834 Romeo. So the house was there in 1953 and they were in the house.
Back to the census!
Let’s focus on Street Names (in the left margin on some census sheets). On page 20, Romeo Street appears for the first time. Street numbers 2009 through 2138. Then jump to page 28 for more Romeo addresses – 1985, 1963, 1947, and 1939. Page 29 has 1931, 1905, 1857, 1843, XX28, 1858, 1904, 1914, 1930, 1936, 1954, and 1962 Romeo. This enumerator is all over the place.
Where is 1834 Romeo?
I’m a visual person, so I decided to open Google Maps and see if I could figure out where the house was. I googled 1834 Romeo, Ferndale, Michigan, to find the cross street, which is Vester and is one block off 9 Mile Road. Using the order the enumerator used, I labeled all the houses in the section. I noticed that the house on the northeast corner of Vester and Symes Street is number 1834. And the house on the northeast corner of Vester and Leitch Road is number 1834. So it would reason that the house on the northeast corner of Vester and Romeo would be 1834 Romeo. But that number is missing on the Google map and is also missing from the census.
In frustration, I looked at page 29 over and over again. Number 1843 then 1828 then 1858 then 1904. So the enumerator is walking up the street – switching back and forth from one side of the street to the other.
Wait, 1843 then 1828? That’s not right.
I zoom in on line 13. That’s not 1828. It’s something –28 but I can’t make it out. My eyes drift over a few columns and I notice “note 2.” I scroll down to the bottom of the page.
The enumerator wrote “Note 2 Man is building home himself in his spare time.”
That man is my grandfather, and that home is 1834 Romeo.
BUT WHERE IS MY MOTHER?
Still no trace of my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt.
At this point, I’m starting to wonder if my grandmother, who was a painfully shy person, just didn’t open the door when the census taker stopped by to count. I may never find her in this census, but the hunt is the fun part of genealogy. The mystery, the puzzle, the unknown.
By Heather Register Zbinden, CALS Roberts Library Programs & Website Coordinator