My Ancestors Were Counted in the Census By Cheryll Boswell

A recent job posting about census-taking got me thinking about what’s at stake if we don’t complete this survey. Every ten years, the U.S. Constitution requires that every person living in the United States be counted. The reason for this count is to ensure fair representation of federal and state funding.

Economic improvement for declining neighborhoods, school funding, from special education to school lunches and head start are all determined by the number of people that complete the census survey. This year the federal government has more than 800 billion dollars for education. Where people live, the number of people living in certain areas will determine how these federal dollars are distributed. This information will be obtained from data collected from new census records. Starting April 1, 2020, U.S. residents can fill out the Census form by mail. For those who are computer savvy, they will be able to complete the census online. There will be door to door census trackers in case the survey is not completed by mail or online.

As we celebrate Black History Month, census records have been a helpful tool used to learn about my black ancestors. While there are some inconsistencies with the spelling of names, my grandparents three times removed showed up on census records as far back as 1880. Coming from a long line of preachers and teachers, it was rewarding to learn my great grandparents born in 1869 could read. This was determined by one of the questions asked of each person completing the census. “Can you read?” Their answer was yes.

Roberta and Charlie Derrick

Most of my roots are in Oklahoma. My maternal side of the family were simple farmers. Everything they ate was either raised or grown on their farm. Eating a new variety of melons my grandfather grew or watching him sneak a sip of his home-made moonshine, while my grandmother cooked on her wood-burning stove are childhood memories that will last a lifetime. My maternal grandfathers’ date of birth was about 1895. Some records show he was a mulatto farmer, and birthplace was Texas. Some records show he was a black farmer born in Texas.

Ironically, both my paternal and maternal ancestors were forced to leave different parts of Texas, and they settled in different areas of Oklahoma. The story of how and why they were chased out of Texas and relocated to Oklahoma is not clear. It is also unclear if their hasty departure was about the color of their skin, land, or both. The United States Department of Commerce wrote in a 1930 Census of Agriculture report that there was an increase in “Negro farmers in Oklahoma.” It also stated there was a decrease in farmers in Texas. Not sure if my ancestors’ exit out of Texas has any correlation with this report. It is one of those things that make you go hmmm.

Being chased out of Texas proved to be a good thing. Unbeknownst to me, each summer we made that long hot drive to visit my grandparents and some of my cousins, we were visiting a historic town. My paternal family started an all-black town in Oklahoma. Summit, Oklahoma, is one of about thirteen black towns that still exist today. Like many urban cities, it has suffered from a decrease in population and urban decline. Which also translates into a loss of federal dollars.

My curiosity piques as to why poor black farmers would put their names on a federal register some seventeen years after slavery was emancipated. What is for sure, my ancestor’s names and their land were counted and recognized by the federal government. And now by family validating their roots 150 years after their birth.