My sister often tells me to put my imagination on paper. This fictitious scenario shows how discrepancies in census records were inevitable. So here goes ….
On July 2, 1900, the census taker for Enumeration District 24 of Tishomingo County, Mississippi visited Julie Braselton. Her neighbor forewarned him of her colorful personality. His visit with her was indeed quite challenging, but he got the information he needed. This is how it went.
Perspiring in the sweltering heat, the census taker approaches Ms. Julie as she sits on her porch smoking a pipe.
Census taker: Hello, I come to take a census of this house for the federal gubment. Can I ax you some questions?
Julie: Well, dat depends on whatcha gonna ax me!
Census taker: Who the head of this household?
Julie: I am.
Her tone reflects her irritation.
Census taker: What is your name?
Julie: Julie Braselton
Census taker immediately writes “Braxton, July,” assuming that she doesn’t know how to spell her name.
Census taker: What year was you born, Julie?
Julie: Honey, I was a slave. Dem white folks didn’t write down our births. But my Momma always told me that I was round eight years old when we got ‘mancipated and left ole Massa’s place in 1865.
Census taker: So that means that you is 43 and was born in 1857.
Julie: I reckon so if you know how to do math.
Census taker: What month was you born in?
Julie: If I can’t tell you what year I’se born in, what makes you think I know the month?
Census taker: OK, I’ll just write that you was born in August 1857. Are you single, married, widowed, or divorced?
Julie: Write down widowed.
Census taker: Why?
Julie: Because that ole scoundrel Mose Braselton is dead to me. He livin’ but he dead.
Census taker: So you divorced?
Julie: Didn’t I tell you to put down that I’s widowed?
Census taker: Alright then. Where is your husband?
Julie: Why you need to know all dat? I told you that I was head of this house. Dat scoundrel done took up with another woman and lives with her. Heard dey got a baby now.
Census taker: I’m sorry to hear dat.
Julie: I ain’t.
Census taker: How many children did you have?
Census taker: All nine of them living?
Julie: No, I lost two. My first two is by my first husband, Jeremiah Miller. Lawd, I miss that man. He gone to glory. He was so good to me! The rest by Mose.
Census taker: How many are living with you now and when was they born?
Julie: You shole is stretching my nerves today! Well, I guess I betta answer. Mary Lee is 26. She the oldest. She married now and live not far from here. Samuel is 24, and he gone to Corinth to work. Those two was by my first husband. Maybelle Braselton is 21. She was born in January. She bout to marry soon but she here with me now. Jake is 19. He was born in May. Lula Mae is 15. She was born in September. Sarah Lee is 11. She was born in February. Lil Mose is 9. Now you can figure out the birth years yoself. We was all born here in Tishomingo County.
Census taker: Is anyone else livin’ here in the house?
Julie: Yeah, my Momma is in the back-room sleep.
Census taker: What her name is?
Julie: Sarah Jane Yarbro. I guess you wanna know how old she is and when she was born, huh? Well, she was born in South Carolina. Jake, come out here!
Jake comes out of the front door and onto the porch where his mother Julie is sitting.
Julie: Go ask Momma about how old she is.
Census taker: Jake, please also ask her how many children she had and how many livin’?
Julie: Oh, I can tell you dat. Its 12 of us. 4 dead. 2 was sold and we don’t know where dey at or if they even livin’.
Census taker: So your Momma was born in South Carolina. Where was your father born?
Julie: He told us that he come from North Carolina.
The census taker writes down North Carolina for the birthplace of Julie’s father and South Carolina for the birthplace of Julie’s mother.
Census taker: Can you read and write?
Julie: Honey, I wish I could. But my chilluns can.
Census taker: Do you rent this property?
Julie: You think I don’t own it? I own this place.
Census taker: What do you do to make money and take care of your family?
Julie: Work in that blazin’ hot sun pickin’ that damn cotton and washing white folks’ dirty clothes. Me and my boys also raise cattle.
Jake comes back onto the porch from questioning his grandmother.
Jake: Big Momma say that she was bout 30 when she had you, Momma. She said that she was born in Virginia but they was taken down to South Carolina when she was a little girl.
Census taker: OK, I’ll put down that Sarah Jane Yarbro was born in August of 1827 and 73 years old.
The census taker doesn’t correct the birthplace for Julie’s mother but records that Virginia is the birthplace of Sarah Jane’s parents.
Census taker: Well, thanks for the information, and y’all have a nice day now.
Julie: Same to you, Sir.
The census taker exits the yard and continues to walk down the road to the next house. Momma Sarah Jane comes out onto the porch from her long nap.
Sarah Jane: Julie, what he need to know all dat fah?
Julie: Anotha gubment census, Momma. I told her Poppa was born in North Carolina.
Sarah Jane: Yo daddy wasn’t born in North Carolina.
Julie: I thought dat what Poppa said.
Sarah Jane: You heard wrong, gal. He was born and raised up in Marion County, Alabama, but his folks come from near Rolly, North Carolina. The Yarbros brought his folks to Alabama befo’ he was born.
Julie: Oh. Lots of bad info gonna be on that gubmint paper then.
Sarah Jane: Don’t worry bout it, Baby. Melvin will figure it all out.
Julie: Who is Melvin?
With a smirk on her face, Sarah Jane goes back in the house without answering her question.