U.S. Census figures from 1940 showing 'the way we were' create huge interest for millions

72-year-old census interest slows computer access

CLEVELAND - I stood outside the two-story frame house, partially hidden by overgrown grass and bushes, and thought back to the scene my father must have witnessed the day he moved into the little house on Cleveland's East 86th street.  The house is within sight of Woodland Avenue in the Central neighborhood.

In 1940, when my father got off the train from Alabama, carrying his suitcase, his uncle greeted him at Cleveland's Union Terminal. They took the bus to the little house on East 86th Street. It would be there my father, Leon Bibb, single at the time, would live as he searched to find a new life in Cleveland.

The census of 1940, just released by the U.S government, shows the vital statistics of 132 million Americans.  It shows where they lived, how many were in the household and the ages of each. My father's uncle and aunt, James and Cora Bibb, were listed at the address on the Cleveland southeast side. The census information is filled with the hand-written scribbles of census-takers, who must have visited Jim and Cora Bibb to record aspects of their lives.

So as I reported the story from the Western Reserve Historical Society, which chronicles the way people lived in Northeast Ohio for the last 200 years, I looked up my great uncle and aunt. As I saw their names in print, my mind raced back to the years before my birth; to the years before my father's marriage to my mother. As a man of 24 years old, my father left his home in Alabama, picked up his cardboard suitcase and moved to Cleveland, intending to live with his uncle and aunt until he could find a place for himself.

The census of 1940 provided me a point I could visit. The old house, which is unoccupied, is still there within a few steps of Woodland Avenue. The trees that my father must have seen have matured. Some of them no doubt have fallen victim to the wind, and age, or the tree surgeon's saw. But where my father got his start in Cleveland is still there.

The back bedroom where he first laid down his head in Cleveland is still there. I could see the window to that room. It was the room my father often referred to throughout the years of my childhood.  

I have been in the house before, but not in decades. When I was a child, I can remember visiting my Uncle Jim and Aunt Cora. They were old and bed-ridden, and I remember my father wanting to often visit them because many years before they had provided him shelter when he moved to Cleveland.

World War II would come along the next year and my father would find himself in the uniform of the U.S. Army.  His draft notice would have been mailed to that little house on East 86th Street. From there, my father would chase Hitler and his army across most of Europe.  The house has always had a special hold on me because of the stories my father would tell.

My father is gone now. He died in 2002. However, every time I am anywhere near the East 86th Sttreet house, I drive by, often stopping to look at it from the curb. Its windows peer back at me as I look into the house and view the walls my father most certainly saw when he was young.

At the Western Reserve Historical Society, where many people flooded on the first day of the release of the 1940 Census information, I looked through the old records. They spoke to me as if they were voices from the past.  They told me again the stories my father had told me.  When I left the WRHS, I went to the little house to touch the past even more.

I could almost see my father walking up those front steps with his suitcase in hand. Uncle Jim, brother of my grandfather, would have held open the door for his young nephew moving to Cleveland. Aunt Cora certainly would have had a hot meal on the table for the hungry relative who had journeyed from Alabama, intent on finding a new life in a new place.

If you are one to look into the past, look into the release of the information from the 1940 census. You will probably find gemstones from the past. You can find your beginnings even before you were here.  That little house on East 86th St.reet in Cleveland is part of my bloodline because my great uncle and aunt lived there, and it was they who took in a nephew who would one day become my father.

The census shows me some of my bloodline. So does that little house where my father slept his first night in what would become his new hometown.  And later, mine, too.

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