No one could predict in 1940 that World War II was destined to become the deadliest conflict in history, so they couldn't foresee how important the data in the 1940 census might become one day.
Information about the lives of U.S. citizens, including those who died in World War II, has been locked away for more than seven decades and is about to be unveiled. And the Howard County Genealogical Society is ready to help people access it.
The nation was emerging from the Depression in 1940, the same year that President Franklin D. Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term in office.
The census, which has been taken every 10 years since 1790, enumerated for the last time those who would soon die in war. People who are tracing their families' histories rely heavily on the information in the federal records.
Howard County genealogy buffs want to help amateur researchers glean ancestral data — such as places and dates of birth — from the 1940 census. The census information will be released April 2, when the mandatory 72-year waiting period runs out.
"This is a very important genealogical event for everyone who had a family member who served in World War II," said Dottie Aleshire, the genealogical society's education chairwoman.
She explained that the length of the waiting period was chosen by the federal government to ensure the privacy of census respondents for a period then deemed the longest life span.
"The 1940 census is the last time those men and women [killed in the war] were recorded with their families, and that's very important to families whose sons, daughters, husbands and wives never returned home," she said.
"Very few families were left untouched by this, and I'm sure any personal information they can get from the census would be considered a long-awaited gift," said Aleshire, a Baltimore native who lives in Ellicott City and teaches genealogy courses at Howard Community College and the Johns Hopkins University.
Aleshire plans to get in line early at the National Archives in Washington on April 2 to use the microfilm readers and computers available to the public there. The records, however, won't be easy to look through; at least initially, the 1940 census data will not be indexed in an easily accessible fashion. Researchers might be aided by addresses or maps of where their relatives lived, if those are available.
"The census was never taken for genealogists; it was done to determine political representation and taxation, connecting the voice of the people with their government," Aleshire said. "People were leery of sharing private information," prompting legislators to agree to withhold the records from public view while most participants were living.
Aleshire, 78, can pinpoint with clarity the moment she became interested in family history.
"My mother died when I was 10, and my father ran a tavern and was never around," she said. "I was the youngest of four, and I was always looking for people to ask about our family, but there wasn't anyone who could answer my questions."
When she married her husband, Bruce, in 1957, his family had "all kinds of records going back to the 1600s," and she yearned again for in-depth information on her own ancestors. But she soon learned what she says all family historians come to know: "Life gets in the way of genealogy."
After leaving work as a stenographer and raising two children, Aleshire picked up where she had left off 20 years earlier. She has been active since 1984 in the Howard and Baltimore genealogical societies and as a volunteer researcher at the Columbia Family History Center, which is open to the public and located in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at U.S. 29 and St. John's Lane. She is not a member of the church.
Although Aleshire traveled to Poland 15 years ago to view records from a Catholic church built in 1144, not everyone can afford such a trip. Besides, there'd been a flood the year before she arrived that could easily have destroyed the information she was seeking. She was lucky: One gravestone in the church's cemetery had not been washed away — an obelisk belonging to her ancestor.
"The priest said to me, 'You were meant to come here,'" she recalled, still relishing the moment of discovery. "None of us can understand what our families went through until we walk in their shoes."
The Family History Center provides a way for researchers — experienced and novice alike — to zero in on records from all over the world without traveling abroad, she said.
Wanda Franklin, a church member and director of the Columbia Family History Center, said the center exists to help people connect to their past, whether or not they're church members.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also called Mormons, believe that families "can be united in the most sacred of all human relationships … in a way not limited by death," according to an excerpt from a church brochure on family history. A video titled "Enjoy Your Family — Now and Forever" is also available free of charge.
Recording and preserving family lineage helps relatives find one another in the afterlife, Franklin explained; there are more than 3,500 family centers around the world that are open to the public to facilitate such searches free of charge. Each center coordinates its efforts with the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Most Mormons have relatives who have filled in their family trees and so they have no need of the services available at the Ellicott City facility, where many of the volunteer hours are donated by nonchurch members.
Franklin, who lives in Columbia and converted to Mormonism in 1968, also recalls when her interest in family history was piqued.
Growing up in South Carolina, she knew a girl about her age with the same last name (Snow) who lived nearby. But when she asked how they might be related, no one could tell her, and she began collecting family records. When her father was killed in a bike accident nearly 20 years ago at age 74, she finally began compiling the book he'd always wished she would write in time for a family reunion in 2000.
"The center is such a blessing. You'll be amazed at what you can find out about your family in just a few minutes," Franklin said, adding that it recorded nearly 1,500 visits in 2011.
Aside from assisting patrons with locating enumeration districts that will help unlock information contained in the 1940 census, Aleshire and Franklin hope to encourage novices to avail themselves of the Family History Center, local genealogy courses and the services of the genealogical society.
"This is extremely important information, and it's very reflective of the times," said Aleshire, who said her grandchildren have devoured the family history contained in her books. "People get a lot of benefit from this research."
Aleshire's talk titled "Are You Ready for the 1940 Census?" was canceled Feb. 8 because of forecasts of inclement weather. It will be rescheduled soon by the Howard County Genealogical Society. For more information, call 410-730-7917 or visit hcgsmd.org.