A 1950 photograph shows an aerial view of West Berkeley. Credit: Berkeley Historical Society.

In 1950, future Oakland mayor Elihu Harris, then 2 years old, was living on Ninth Street in Northwest Berkeley, with his mother and his father, who was working as a barber.

Several miles south on Wood Street in Oakland, 14-year-old Ron Dellums lived with his sister and mother, a Texas-born “domestic worker.” Dellums would grow up to serve 13 terms in Congress.

These and other details about the two famous East Bay residents are revealed in a new U.S. census records database that, as of Friday, is public and freely searchable online. And if you had relatives living in Berkeley in 1950 — or anywhere in the nation — you can now uncover this sort of information about them.

Access to census records is restricted for 72 years, for privacy reasons, so this is the first time the 1950 information has been available. General population statistics are made available to the public right away, but now you can view the raw, handwritten forms with names and details. Each time a new decade is released, it’s a monumental occasion for historians as well as regular citizens looking to learn more about their ancestry and the world their relatives live in.

“Thanks to all those people who participated in the 1950 census, we can follow the movement of people across the country and gain a glimpse into how they lived through the National Archives release,” said Robert Santos, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, in a press release. 

For example, Harris’ family was part of the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South to the northern and western states; the records show that his parents living in Berkeley were born in Arkansas. 

The U.S. Census Bureau has created a searchable database, using artificial intelligence to extract information from old microfilm records. It can be tricky to find what you’re looking for — both because of how the records were compiled and how the search software works — but read on for guidance.

How to search the 1950 census

The website allows you to search by name, as well as the city, county, and state, or Indian reservation, where your relative lived. Only the “head” of the household’s full name was taken down by census enumerators, whereas all other family members were listed by first name below. So for the most accurate results, search for the person considered the household head in 1950 society — the husband in a nuclear family, for example. 

When you find a result that appears to be the one you’re seeking, click “population schedule” to view the original record. The street names are written along the left side of the page, and the house numbers, along with details about the individual members of the household, are written in rows. 

Each decennial census includes slightly different categories. In this one, you can see demographic information and details about the person’s job. In 1940 you could see what people were paying in rent. (If you’re used to 2022 rent prices in Berkeley, prepare to be shocked.)

Because the census was collected by canvassers knocking on doors and verbally asking people for their personal information, the data is subject to human error, including frequent misspellings and illegible handwriting. The database actually asks you to correct the record if you notice one of these mistakes. 

Where to find information from earlier decades

If you have a Berkeley Public Library card, you can sift through previous decades of census forms, all the way back to 1790, through a searchable Ancestry.com database. Go to the Ancestry page through the library website, and log in with the number on your card. Scroll down to “search US census.” 

Fill in whatever information you have in the search box; typically it’s enough to enter in a name, and writing “Berkeley” in the “Lived In” field helps too. It’ll turn up a bunch of records, many of which will be unrelated. Typically yours will be hiding there somewhere on the first or second page of results. 

You can hover over the results to see the summary of the data, or click “view” to see the original record. This database is easier to navigate than the 1950 Census Bureau site, and it will soon include those records as well.

However, there is one set of records that’s unavailable no matter which service you’re using or when you’re looking. In 1921, a federal building in Washington, D.C., caught fire, tragically destroying almost all of the 1890 census records, leaving massive gaps in countless families’ histories. A few places were salvaged, but sadly Berkeley (or anywhere in California, for that matter) wasn’t among them.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...