June 30, 2019
by Steve Stofka
This week the Supreme Court ruled that the administration had not provided an adequate reason to include a proposed citizenship question on the 1920 census. Here’s a snapshot of that section of the census form (Note #1).
This week I’ll look at past census questions through the lens of personal family history – completed copies of census pages. In 1850, the Census first asked people their place of birth and naturalization status. For a hundred years, the census asked the question until the topic was dropped for the 1960 census (Note #2).
In 1860, just before the Civil War, some of my family ancestors were farmers in Mississippi. All forty people listed on that census page had been born in a southern state, most from Mississippi or Alabama. The Education section of the census did not yet ask whether a person could read and write; only whether each person had attended school in the past year. Fourteen out of forty people listed on that census page had gone to school. There was only one child of school age who had not attended school. A rural farming community in the deep south with limited resources made sure that their children could read and write. That was an essential part of the American project.
In drafting the 14th and 15th Amendments after the Civil War, there was some discussion about adding an English language requirement for voting. At that time, German was the second language of America and was the most taught foreign language in schools. Considering the industriousness and good character of German men, lawmakers decided against such an exclusion. Fifty years later, in the midst of the WW1, Americans would excoriate the hated “Hun” and demean the character of many German immigrants. War changes attitudes.
Let’s skip ahead to the 1900 census taken in a Texas county east of Dallas. The question can you read and write had been added to the census. In a rural farming community, only four out of fifty people listed on that census page could not read and write. All were adults. One was over fifty. All the children aged eight and above were literate.
Let’s travel in time and space to an environment that couldn’t be more unlike rural Texas – the lower east side of Manhattan for the 1930 census. Of the fifty people listed, all adults were immigrants, most of them from eastern Europe. The earliest on that page had arrived in 1890; the latest was just a year earlier, in 1929. All except four people from Russia could read and write. The census asked the language spoken in the home before they came to America. Most people on that page answered Yiddish, except my grandparents, who spoke Slovak. My grandmother, a woman from a rural farming community, could read three languages. It was all part of growing up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the time she died, she had added English to that list. I imagine that the Yiddish speakers had some familiarity with German and Hebrew. How many of us today can read several languages?
The farmers from western Europe had spilled out into the farms of America during the 19th century. In a second wave near the turn of the century, many farmers from eastern and southern Europe found work in the rural communities of the northern states. Many, like my grandparents, crowded into the dense streets of New York City when they first arrived. They worked hard because farm kids learn about hard work as they grow up.
A new generation of farm kids is arriving, but not by ship. They are coming from areas to the south that have been hit hard with drought, violence and political corruption. They come from hard work for little pay (Note #3). They have not waited in line for years to come into this country. Instead, they are showing up at the southern border just as many of our ancestors showed up at Ellis Island and other eastern ports.
Most of us in this country are the descendants of farmers who made sure their kids could read and write. That is the heart of the American spirit: character, hard work and education. Maybe the Congress needs to rewrite the laws so that they conform with the rules that we carry in our hearts and our guts from our parents and their parents and their parents…
- Some background on the 2020 census question from Pew Research
- Short history of census questions and index of past census questions
- See the six part series “Borderland” ( https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3300988/ for info). Six Americans follow the routes of migrants from Central America. An Idaho farmer experiences grueling work for little pay and understands the attraction of his farm to these migrants where they can make 5x as much or more harvesting crops.