Below is a page from the 1940 Covington County, Alabama, Census. My great-grandmother, Margaret Ray Baker, and her four children are recorded at the bottom of the page, beginning on Row 35. They lived in a house on the shore of Lake Jackson in Florala, Alabama, which is a small town on the state border between Alabama and Florida. Margaret is listed the as head of the household, her husband, Charles, having died twelve years earlier of a cerebral hemorrhage. Her son, Charles Ray Baker, was 21-years-old in 1940 and her three daughters were teenagers.
There is a lot of information to glean from this census page. Notice that there are 34 columns of information. Although it must have been tedious for the census takers to fill out all of this information at the time, their efforts have produced a boon of information for today’s family researchers. Let’s delve into what this page has to say about Margaret and her family in 1940 Florala. Keep in mind, at that time, World War II was underway in Europe and in the Pacific. The United States would not get involved until the end of the following year, after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, but the thought of war was certainly in the air.
It may help our examination if we tease the record apart. We’ll start below by zooming in on the first few columns of information. Looking at the ages in Column 11, we see that Margaret was 30 years older than her eldest child, Charles, and a full 40 years older than her youngest, Carolyn, indicating that Margaret began her family much later than was typical in her day. Column 12 records her marital status as widowed. Column 14 records the highest grade completed by each person. Margaret and her 21-year-old son, Charles, both finished their four years of high school (“H4”). Fran finished her a junior year (“H3”), Lyra finished ninth grade (“H1”), and Carolyn completed fourth grade (“4”).
Column 22, shown below, records that Margaret, Charles, and Fran were all assigned to jobs created by Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” legislation, which was enacted to create work in the wake of the Great Depression. WPA workers, for example, built infrastructure, fostered the arts, and helped with disaster relief. The NYA employed high school and college students so they could continue their education, and the CCC employed young men in conservation work, creating and improving the national parks and forests. Young Charles had worked with the CCC and Margaret took a job teaching young men employed by the New Deal. We see in column 27 that Margaret had been unemployed for 65 months (five and a half years!) prior to 30 March 1940, and that her son had been unemployed for 25 months, probably since the time he turned 19-years-old. We also see that Margaret’s occupation was that of a teacher, focused on adult education and that Charles was a photographer, “making pictures”. In another year or two, after the United States entered World War II, Margaret resumed her career as an elementary school teacher in Florala, filling a void left by other teachers who moved south to Pensacola to assume factory and munitions jobs in support their husbands’ war efforts overseas. Margaret taught for about 15 more years, retiring in 1957 at age 69.
Columns 31 to 33, below, provide further information about Margaret and her son’s work and wages. Margaret worked for 32 weeks in 1939 while Charles worked for 24 weeks. Considering there are 52 weeks in a year, they averaged out to about a half-years’s employment, earning a total of $772 in annual income for the household. Margaret supplemented these earning by gardening and raising a few chicken and livestock on her property. Her unmarried sisters, Jessie and Annie, also lived in Florala with their own small farms and certainly would have assisted Margaret’s family with food if times got too lean.
Double back to those first columns of the census, we see that Margaret’s house was the 77th home visited by this census taker. We also find that Margaret owned her home and that the house was valued at $3,000. Despite the fact that Margaret supplemented her income with homegrown vegetables and livestock, her lot was in town and did not qualify as a farm. She was not alone in this circumstance; many Florala families took the same tactic and filled their lots with gardens to get through those lean years of the Depression-era 1930’s. But, brighter times were ahead. After the war, Margaret seized an opportunity for full-time employment, her children were able to achieve higher education, and Margaret lived to be a very old great-grandmother, not passing away until 1986, at the age of 98.