In 1940 census, Harlemite Althea Gibson Didn’t Exist

May 21, 2012

althea-gibson-1957It was on the streets of her Harlem neighborhood in the 1940s that teenager Althea Gibson began working on the tennis skills that would take her all the way to winning Wimbledon.But according to the 1940 census, the trailblazing black athlete didn’t even exist.

There’s no record of Gibson and her family in the decennial census, the records of which were released online to the public April 2 by the U.S. National Archives after a 72-year confidentiality period lapsed.

She and her family aren’t the only ones — more than 1 million black people weren’t accounted for in 1940, an undercount that had ramifications on everything from the political map to the distribution of resources.

It also had an impact on the U.S. Census Bureau, the agency said, leading to efforts that continue as it counts people every decade, to assess how well it managed to count people and determine what could be done to improve. An analysis of the 2010 census’ efficacy is being released Tuesday. The undercount estimate has generally gone down, but it has always been disproportionately higher for black people.

There are a variety of reasons for undercounts — people move around; people may not know or be reluctant to answer government questions; address lists may be inaccurate; extremely crowded areas can be difficult to count, as can extremely isolated areas. Experts said they believe some of those factors weigh more heavily on minority undercounts.

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The 1940 census was long known to have a black undercount. Evidence of it was found within a decade in a demographic study of young children and another of draft-age men. But modern-day genealogists digging into the newly released 1940 census records may be rediscovering it when they cannot locate their relatives or friends.

Celedonia (Cal) Jones knows that Gibson, who died in 2003, lived in Harlem at the time, because the Manhattan borough historian emeritus remembers playing with her as a child.

“She used to dominate the paddle tennis,” Jones said. “Her nickname was ‘Tomboy.’ ”

It can be difficult to find entries in the 1940 census, because there isn’t a complete name index for the records available and there won’t be for months. But Lillian Chisholm, Gibson’s sole surviving sister who was born in August 1940, confirmed the family lived at 135 W. 143rd St., making it possible to look up the census ledger.

An enumerator visited the building at least five times in April 1940, according to the census records. An Associated Press review found no listing of Gibson, who was 12 at the time, or her parents, though other residents were counted.

There had been anecdotal information of population undercounts in previous censuses, but it was the data from the 1940 effort that really made it clear, said Phil Sparks, former associate director of the bureau and now co-director of the Census Project, which advocates for an accurate count.

Government officials could see the count was off, particularly in the count of black men of a certain age group in the South, because they were using census data to plan for how many would be registering to fight in World War II, Sparks said. More signed up than were expected.

According to census reports, the black undercount was estimated at 8.4% in 1940, meaning that a population counted at 12.9 million was actually more like 14.1 million. The undercount for the non-black population was 5%, or about 6.3 million people. The total undercount for all races was 7.5 million.

The Census Bureau said it would have to check into the situation when asked about Gibson and her family not being part of the 1940 count.

Jones isn’t surprised that his childhood friend and others somehow got left out. “It’s part and parcel of being written out of history, that’s the first step,” he said. “You don’t count.”

The importance of an accurate count is vital, because federal money flows to states and localities based on the census, so a wrong count can impact a whole decade.

To see the 1940 census, go to


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