It’s seen as the greatest mother lode of information yet on the “Greatest Generation.”
Genealogists and family historians are eagerly awaiting the government’s release Monday of the 1940 census, filled with the deepest details of the generation that clawed its way out of the Depression only to face the impending threat of World War II.
The documents have been protected for the past 72 years by privacy laws.
For Grace Amemiya, 91, of Ames, the census captured a portrait of her life as a young Japanese-American woman living in California before she was uprooted and sent to an internment camp.
Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, 21-year-old Amemiya was forced to leave the San Francisco School of Nursing for the Gila River Camp in Arizona, where roughly 10,000 Japanese-Americans were sent. She roomed with her family, except for two of her brothers who served in the U.S. military.
“We had to get rid of everything that we owned, except what we could carry. We either gave away, destroyed or sold anything we had,” said Amemiya.
After working as a nurse in the camp for one year, Amemiya was able to join the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps in Rochester, Minn., where she finished her training. While there, she was reunited with her college boyfriend, Minoru Amemiya, who found her after losing contact when they were sent to different internment camps.
They married and later settled in Ames when her husband was offered a position in agronomy at Iowa State University in 1960.
“I wouldn’t be in Iowa if it hadn’t been for all of this,” said Amemiya. “I most likely would still be in California, because that was home to us.”
Stories like Amemiya’s are one of many reasons genealogists and researchers have been anticipating the release of the 1940 census.
At the Iowa Genealogical Society in Des Moines, librarian Debi Chase said she and her 1,300 members hope to unlock clues to their own family histories.
“After the Depression, so many people were moving to different areas of the country looking for work,” said Chase. “A lot of people got lost.”
Anyone will be able to access digital images of the microfilm records online through the National Archive, but the images will not be searchable by name. To remedy this, the Iowa Genealogical Society is joining in a national effort to index the census. The effort is spearheaded by Familysearch.org, Archives.com and Brightsolid.com.
Chase has been working directly with Familysearch.org, the world’s largest genealogical organization, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Familysearch.org had estimated the project would take eight years to complete, but it’s now expected to take just six months because of an overwhelming response from volunteers.
Since genealogy organizations have been providing free family records for years, Chase said that volunteering “allows people to give back.”
Besides basic information such as age, gender and race, the 1940 census will reveal additional information about families’ occupations and incomes.
About 5 percent of interviewees answered supplemental questions, such as the birthplace of their parents, their age when married, the number of marriages and so forth. These details are what genealogists say sets this census apart and what many people hope will give shape to their family trees.
“Everybody hopes that their people were the ones stuck answering those questions,” said Chase.
In Cedar Rapids, the Linn County Genealogical Society will be showcasing the county’s documents, focusing on authenticity over digitization. Longtime volunteer Charlene Hansen said the society is purchasing the microfilm for Linn County from the National Archive.
Despite her excitement, Hansen admits that the indexing “will be very involved.”
Hansen’s zeal for genealogy began in 1965 when her fourth-grade daughter was asked to create a four-generation family tree for a homework assignment. When Hansen realized she didn’t have records, she began to dig, contacting relatives in Germany. Today, she has enlarged the chart to include 13 generations and has created four family books.
“I do it because I want my kids and grandkids to know who their descendants are,” said Hansen.
Hansen’s granddaughter recently expressed interest in the family history, and while Hansen is excited to share it, she said it contains some surprises.
“There were a lot of divorces and adoptions,” said Hansen. “So she might be a little shocked when she sees the paperwork, but that’s part of it.”
Amemiya agreed findings can be shocking when the past is explored. Living in Ames, which she describes as “a wonderful community,” she finds it hard to believe how her family was treated by the U.S. government.
Amemiya has been vocal about the discrimination she experienced during World War II, speaking at universities, churches and schools. She believes education can help prevent history from repeating itself and is happy if the census helps spread awareness.
“It’s very important for people to know about this,” said Amemiya. “This is something that happened to loyal citizens of the United States.”