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GC1Y 1000:Social Problems: Census Research

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About the Census

A census is "an official accounting of population."  In the United States, Article I, Section two of the Constitution mandates that a census is taken every 10 years.  The primary purpose of the census is to determine the apportionment of taxes and representation in Congress.  The first census was conducted in 1790.

Because of the complex social changes that have taken place within the United States over the course of time, researchers should bring an awareness of history into the evaluation of census data.  For the Sundown Towns assignment, this type of critical evaluation is absolutely necessary.

General Limitations of Census Data

The National Archives and Records Administration provides the following general limitations of the United States Census.  These limitations should be kept in mind when evaluating places to classify them as "Sundown Times"

  1. Residents were not always cooperative with census takers.  Lack of cooperation could affect whether or not a household was counted.
  2. It is possible that residents may not have been at home when the census taker visited, leading to their absence from the official count.  Neighbors may have been asked to provide information on behalf of others and information could have been provided erroneously.
  3. Between the years of 1790-1860, the following limitations apply to census data on African Americans
    1. The majority of African Americans were enslaved during this time and thus were not enumerated in the census 
  4. Between the years 1790-1840, the following limitations apply to census data on African Americans
    1. Free African Americans were listed similarly to whites
    2. The following racial categories were ascribed to African Americans: Black, colored, and mulatto
  5. Between the years 1850-1860
    1. African Americans were enumerated in two separate schedules
      1. Slave schedules - numerical documentation of slaves only (no names, only estimated age, and sex)
      2. Free schedules - All free households, including free African Americans, were enumerated together
  6. 1870 Census
    1. The first census to newly emancipated African Americans by name
    2. Racial classification expands to include Chinese and Indian (Native American), along with Black, white and Chinese
  7. 1880-1930 Census
    1. Provides much more detail
    2. Varies by year
    3. Most of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire in 1921; The only Georgia county for which "fragments" of the 1890 Census exist is Muscogee County (Columbus)

Source: African Americans in the Federal Census, 1790-1830: Using Federal Census Records to Find Information on African American Ancestors