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Family Historians Parse the Past With Newly Released 1950 Census Data

Cause for Celebration Among Genealogists

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Above image credit: The Mid-Continent Public Library, which operates the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, considers it the largest public genealogy facility in the country. (Courtesy | Mid-Continent Public Library)

One of the first patrons through the library door was a researcher looking for her father.

He’d been born in January of 1950, so Claire McClain of Independence believed that he – as an infant – should have been at his family’s home when federal enumerators taking the 1950 Census began circulating the following April.

Records documenting the country’s approximately 151 million individual residents in 1950 became available for the first time at 12:01 a.m. Friday, April 1, 2022.

McClain arrived just after the Midwest Genealogical Center in Independence opened some 10 hours later. Her plan: To find her father’s name and forward it to family members in time for his upcoming memorial service in Ohio.

Her father, David McClain, died in November.

But as genealogy novices and veterans alike may be discovering, census research can be a lot like what happens when family curiosity, pursued online, encounters federal bureaucratic protocols of the mid-20th century. 

The 1950 Census website allows researchers to type in a name directly into a search engine.

But David McClain’s name wasn’t showing up for his daughter.

“We tell everyone,” Chelsea Clarke, assistant branch manager at the center, said that morning, “to be patient and flexible.”

Root Beer and the Everly Brothers

The National Archives and Records Administration releases individual census records every 10 years.

Privacy laws prevent such data from being released until 72 years after its initial collection, so April 1 represented the first day the 1950 “population schedules” – the detailed records of individual households – became available.

Such data dumps are something of a holiday for folks fascinated by family history.

“This is big news for genealogists,” Clarke said. “They have been counting down the days.”

While online access to the 1950 Census data is free, Midwest Genealogy Center staff members will assist patrons. The Mid-Continent Public Library, which operates the center at 3440 S. Lee’s Summit Road in Independence, considers it the largest public genealogy facility in the country. 

Accordingly, its staff observed the 1950 Census release date with all appropriate ceremony. 

Emily Wildhaber (left) and Chelsea Clarke, assistant branch managers at the Midwest Genealogy Center, celebrated the April 1 release of 1950 Census data by offering patrons root beer and cookies bearing the number “50.”
Emily Wildhaber (left) and Chelsea Clarke, assistant branch managers at the Midwest Genealogy Center, celebrated the April 1 release of 1950 Census data by offering patrons root beer and cookies bearing the number “50.” (Brian Burnes | Flatland)

Assistants offered patrons root beer and played period music such as the Everly Brothers – albeit, softly. While genealogy engenders a sense of community among its practitioners, it’s generally a private pursuit more suited to carpeted library settings. 

Eureka moments, when they do occur, may be shared in whispers – or not. Genealogists tend to be on a mission.

“They are very focused,” Clarke said.

The Kansas City area long has been friendly to them, with unique resources that serve their needs. 

That includes the Mid-Continent system, which began collecting genealogy materials in the 1920s.

More recently, genealogists came to admire the system for its complete set of census microfilm dating back to 1790. 

That year marked the taking of the initial census, two years after ratification of the Constitution, which mandated such a count be completed every 10 years to determine apportionment of U.S. House of Representatives members.

Over the decades Mid-Continent developed its genealogy collection, maintaining it at its North Independence branch at 317 W. U.S. 24 where patrons – some of whom would park their campers at the small RV park across the road – would gather in the morning, waiting for the doors to open.

Then there is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for whose members genealogy contains a faith component. 

Church members believe the eternal joining of families is possible through sealing ceremonies conducted in temples. These rites may also be performed by proxy for those who have died.

The church maintains family history centers around the world, including several in the Kansas City area. They are free and open to the public.

Microfilm at Midnight

The former National Archives Central Plains Region branch, once located at 2312 E. Bannister Road, like the Mid-Continent North Independence location, also maintained a set of census microfilm dating back to 1790. 

Decades before widespread digitization through services like Ancestry and others, the census would be released on microfilm rolls every 10 years.

The first census microfilm arrived at Kansas City’s National Archives branch in 1972, said Reed Whitaker, who served at the facility in various roles for more than 40 years.

Then “Roots” happened.

The 1977 television miniseries, based on the 1976 novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” by writer Alex Haley, affected National Archives facilities across the country.

By the end of 1977, officials reported a 50% increase in census-related research requests. 

In 1982 and 1992 enthusiastic researchers showed up at the Central Plains Region branch for the microfilmed 1910 and 1920 census records, respectively.

In 2002 – in anticipation of the 1930 census – 13 regional National Archives branches were allowed to establish their own policies, and the Kansas City facility was one of three to open at 12:01 a.m. 

Staff members offered patrons coffee and donuts as they spent the night wading through more than 2,600 available microfilm reels, using some 30 microfilm-reader stations.

By 1957 researchers at the National Archives in Washington were using microfilm reading machines.
By 1957 researchers at the National Archives in Washington were using microfilm reading machines. Census microfilm was available at the archives’ Central Plains Region branch in Kansas City by 1972. (Courtesy | National Archives)

The gradual arrival of digitization changed that.

In 2004 the National Archives published technical guidelines for digitizing archival materials. Cultural heritage institutions across the country began referencing these standards in their own digitization efforts. 

Soon National Archives visitors began expecting to find all archival materials online.

This transition also could be seen in the private genealogy sector. 

Those attending the 2008 National Genealogical Society convention in Kansas City encountered laptop-carrying genealogists huddling in the Hyatt Regency hotel lobby, accessing the free Wi-Fi before – in an adjacent ballroom – visiting with vendors who hawked research manuals and demonstrated the latest software.

Guests could enter an ancestor’s name into a search engine and see the screen fill with the names of long-deceased and perhaps never-even-heard-of relations.

It marked the end of midnight microfilm.

 “Our research room went from being overrun by genealogists to pretty much nothing,” said Whitaker, who retired in 2009 as regional administrator for the National Archives at Kansas City.

“But it had been great fun,” he added. “The genies are a different breed entirely, and they are devoted to their research.”

In 2009 officials dedicated the new National Archives regional facility at 400 W. Pershing Road, just west of Union Station. Its public access computer room is currently closed, following agency requirements related to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The “Roots” phenomenon, meanwhile, also affected the Mid-Continent Library system.

Its collection of local history volumes and other materials provided by a Daughters of the American Revolution chapter dated to the 1920s.

In the mid-1960s, system executive John Ferguson resolved to build a genealogy collection of books that circulated, not kept in locked cabinets.

By 1976 the system was well positioned to meet the demand “Roots” created.

“Genealogy became more popular in the national zeitgeist, with more people saying ‘I want to trace my family’s history just like Alex Haley did,’ ‘’ said Steve Potter, Mid-Continent Library director and CEO.

By 1978 the Missouri Room, home to the branch’s census records, could be found in the downstairs level of the North Independence branch. The area later became the Genealogy and Local History Department, which in 1996 moved into a new wing of the North Independence branch.

By 1998 more than 100,000 researchers came through its doors.

“The Big Count,” a 1950 census training film, informed enumerators that the 1950 census likely would result in more than the approximately 70 bound volumes of reports generated by the 1940 census.
“The Big Count,” a 1950 census training film, informed enumerators that the 1950 Census likely would result in more than the approximately 70 bound volumes of reports generated by the 1940 Census. (Courtesy | National Archives)

When library board members initiated their first strategic review several years later, they considered their genealogical resources an obvious strength.

“But we didn’t always offer the most comfortable of settings,” Potter said.

“We were bursting at the seams. We had a controlled storage room where we kept our most valuable books, but it was just a closet. Sometimes you would walk into our ‘controlled storage’ and see a box of toilet paper in there.

“We just didn’t have the space.”

Mid-Continent board members took pride in being among the “best-kept secrets” in the Kansas City metro area, Potter added.

“But by 2004 we were thinking ‘Yeah, we are the best-kept secret, but maybe we shouldn’t be.’ So we decided to build on our strength, which was genealogy.”

The board authorized the construction of a two-story, 52,000-square-foot foot genealogy facility, and the $8 million Midwest Genealogy Center opened in 2008. Mid-Continent expanded the center in 2019 to house more collections and host family history seminars.

Declining Core, Expanding Edges

In 1950 Kansas City observed its centennial, staging a historical pageant, “Thrills of a Century,” at the newly constructed Starlight Theatre in Swope Park.

That year the Kansas City metro area represented the 20th largest metropolitan area in the country, said Frank Lenk, director of research services for the Mid-America Regional Council, or MARC.

“We are the 31st largest metro area now,” he added.

Excavating Family Histories

For free online access to the 1950 Census, go to 1950census.archives.gov
For information about the Midwest Genealogy Center, go to mymcpl.org/genealogy
For information about the National Archives at Kansas City, go to archives.gov/kansas-city
To access an online portal to the 1950 Census maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, go to familysearch.org

The Census Bureau routinely generates studies detailing aggregate trends for cities, counties and regional areas. For example, Lenk said, the 1950s represented the decade during which the Kansas City area experienced its largest net migration from around the country.

About 90,000 people moved to the Kansas City area between 1950 and 1960. That in part reflected the community’s appeal after the rebuilding that followed the 1951 Flood, Lenk added.

In comparison, net migration for the Kansas City area between 2010 and 2020 was just under 80,000 new residents.

Another 1950s Kansas City area trend was the acceleration – not the beginning, Lenk said – of the community’s continuing pattern of decline in the metro area’s core combined with growth on the area’s outer boundaries.

Transportation investment played a role in this.

In 1950 Kansas City built its first expressway, Southwest Trafficway.

The first construction of what would ultimately become Interstate 35 began the following year, providing a corridor to several northeast Johnson County municipalities such as Westwood and Fairway, which had incorporated in 1949, and Roeland Park and Mission, which would do so in 1951.

But evidence of the Kansas City area’s pattern of disinvestment in core urban districts in favor of investments in outer edge areas also could be seen between 1920 and 1940, Lenk said. Planning for the Country Club Plaza, considered the first suburban shopping center, had been completed by 1922.

“It was built for the automobile,” Lenk said.

The development of the interstate highway system – authorized in 1956 – would accelerate that pattern, not create it, Lenk said.

“The areas that were in decline – where minorities were concentrated – was a pattern that already existed in Kansas City before the interstate,” he said.

Government policy beyond the interstate construction contributed to that acceleration, Lenk added.

“That included housing policies to provide low-interest mortgages to returning GIs, but only in certain parts of town, and only in new construction,” he said.

“It stemmed from creating a segregated pattern of development where whites could live in some parts and Blacks could live in other parts, and the areas where Blacks lived were disinvested in,” Lenk said.

Some residents who could afford to move out of some districts did so, Lenk added.

“As long as we created this pattern where there was racially concentrated poverty in one part of town and not in other parts, then you created this kind of urban dynamic where the minority and core parts were disinvested in, and new investment flowed to the edges.”

While this occurred in the Kansas City metro area it was not unique to it, Lenk added.

“It (disinvestment) was a result of Jim Crow types of restrictions, and those existed in many parts of the United States,” he said.

Only in the last decade or so does it appear that the pattern of disinvestment in the Kansas City area is reversing, Lenk added.

“Between 2010 and 2020 growth returned to the core,” he said.

That part of the metro area, Lenk added, absorbed nearly 40% of the region’s overall population growth.

“In decades past, there had been a net decline in the core but in this case it added 66,000 people while about 114,000 people moved to areas along the developing edges of the Kansas City region,” Lenk said. “So, while it wasn’t a reversal of the pattern, now growth was occurring everywhere.”

That growth, Lenk said, largely was a result of policies adopted by local governments to encourage redevelopment of those existing areas and create denser nodes along strategic corridors, providing a wider variety of housing and shopping opportunities, and also making them more accessible by public transit.

“It’s a much healthier pattern of development,” he said.

Anonymous Enumerator’s Hand

Those visiting the 1950 Census website can search by entering a family name as well as a home state or city.

Anyone so inclined also can wander the Kansas City metro area.

In 1950 future Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes was in residence at the Drumm Farm in Independence, having been removed from his father and stepmother by juvenile welfare authorities.

The 1950 Census listed future Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes as a “lodger” at the Drumm Farm in Independence, along with his older brother, Stanley.
The 1950 Census listed future Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes as a “lodger” at the Drumm Farm in Independence, along with his older brother, Stanley. (Flatland | Brian Burnes)

Rhodes, with his older brother Stanley, are listed as “lodgers” at what then was a working farm for orphaned or neglected boys.

But names entered into the search engine don’t always appear. Sometimes researchers wanting to locate specific addresses will need to access finding guides to track down individual enumeration districts.

The census taker assigned to Enumeration District 48-7 in Independence found Nellie and Ethel Noland at 216 N. Delaware Ave. But – to judge from the microfilm – the  enumerator apparently didn’t walk across the street to see if the Nolands’ cousin – Harry Truman, then president of the United States – was home at 219 N. Delaware.

The National Archives is using artificial intelligence/optical character recognition (AI/OCR) developed by Amazon Web Services to retrieve names from the digitized 1950 Census population schedules. 

That is not expected to prove 100% accurate, as the process may struggle with the penmanship of enumerators working 72 years ago.

The archives is requesting patrons submit accurate transcriptions using a tool available on the 1950 Census website.

Then there were the enumerators who spelled names incorrectly, as Claire McClain learned.

While she had visited the genealogy center on April 1 without finding her father’s name, she had persevered, ultimately finding her father a few days later by searching for her father’s older brother, Glenn. 

And suddenly, there the family was, on Lothrop Street in Detroit, Michigan.

The enumerator had noted her father’s age as “Jan,” or January, for the month he’d been born.

The enumerator, however, had spelled the family name as “McClean,” not “McClain.”

But McClain found her family anyway.

“It basically just took patience, skimming down the pages that had someone named Glenn, until I found the correct family,” McClain said.

 “Once I got the hang of the search options, it wasn’t difficult, just repetitive. You have to skim the page looking for a familiar name and then continue that process over and over till you find what you’re looking for.”

She texted and emailed the correct census page to family members for her father’s memorial service held April 9 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

It had been worth the effort, McClain added.

In 1950 a census enumerator visited the Detroit, Michigan, home of the McClain family, which included infant David McClain (left). Some 72 years later David’s daughter Claire McClain of Independence tracked down the resulting census entry, in which the family’s name had been misspelled.
In 1950 a census enumerator visited the Detroit, Michigan, home of the McClain family, which included infant David McClain (left). Some 72 years later David’s daughter Claire McClain of Independence tracked down the resulting census entry, in which the family’s name had been misspelled. (Courtesy | Claire McClain).

She was pleased that discussing the search process with family members had prompted conversations about where her grandparents had lived as newlyweds.

Also, seeing her father’s name as rendered by the anonymous enumerator’s hand nevertheless resonated in a personal way.

“My dad is no longer here to answer questions I may have about his life,” McClain said.

“The census form, and the conversations with his siblings during the search for that form, has been providing the answers and stories he can no longer share.”

Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer and author. He is serving as president of the Jackson County Historical Society.

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