Reflections on Black History Month: Finding Ourselves in Data

By Imani Bryant

In the years between the decennial census, many people only interact with census data through family history and ancestry research. Millions of people each year use websites like Ancestry, 23 & Me, and My Heritage to sift through the ever growing catalog of historical government data. These journeys through the data have resulted in family reunions and journeys of self discovery.

As my family’s amateur genealogist, I have spent countless hours staring at handwritten census data, military personnel files, and other official records from 1870 through 1940 looking for long-lost ancestors. I am an African American descendant of enslaved Africans, so many of my family records only exist in census data, military service files, and fragmented oral histories. This is the reality for many African Americans looking for their family records. Many of our elderly family members and ancestors were born before the establishment of the Social Security Administration, birth and death certificate requirements, or other forms of official identification. Even when these methods of identification were available, they were often inaccessible for Black people due to institutional racism. This has resulted in the erasure of generations of Black people and their stories.

For my family, our records become verifiable through census records in the early 1900s — 1920 for my father’s side of the family and 1910 for my mother’s. There are fragments of records scattered throughout the preceding decades up to 1870, but millions of other African Americans and I are missing hundreds of ancestors on our family trees. This pattern of African Americans disappearing from data and federal records is not a phenomenon of the past. To this day, African Americans continue to be undercounted in the decennial census and population estimates. In the 2010 Census, the African American population was undercounted by more than 800,000. This led to less federal funding being allocated to Black communities, resulting in billions of federal and state tax dollars never reaching the Black community. Similarly, an estimated 2 million Black Americans may not have been counted in the 2020 Census. This will lead to Black communities not receiving billions more dollars over the decade in federal resources.

Late last year, the Smithsonian Institution released millions of records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, with the promise that more would be released as they are transcribed from the original paper format. These records have already proven to be a significant tool in the search for family histories, showing the importance of not only federal data collection and record keeping but also making that data accessible to the public. There are millions of untold stories hiding in dusty storage cabinets and archives. These stories can not only help people like me find family members in the past, but also change the perception of the American story.

Today, it remains essential for the Census Bureau to accurately count all communities so that future generations have the data about their families that they deserve — and so that living generations receive the resources they need. Data must reflect the true nature of our country. And unless all communities — especially historically undercounted communities like the Black community — are counted accurately, we will continue to see inequitable distribution of federal resources.

America’s story for far too long has been told through the lens of those who hold the privilege of having access to their data. It has been told through a white supremacist lens that says people like my ancestors didn’t contribute anything to this country until after 1865 — that we didn’t exist. However, the proof is in the data. We did exist. We lived, worked, bled, and died for this country, and it is time that our story is told in the data.

Imani Bryant is the senior campaigns and programs assistant at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.