A Bellport man wanted information about his biological mother. A Jericho woman found out how much her grandfather earned in 1950. And an Amityville woman added to her knowledge of the lives of people of color on Long Island decades ago — but she lamented how a government document erased the Native American heritage of people such as herself.

They all used the 1950 census, released in its entirety this year, for their excavations of family histories. 

Usually about a year after the once-a-decade census is taken, the U.S. Census Bureau releases information providing a statistical portrait of the nation down to its smallest communities. It reveals data such as population counts, race and ethnicity, age, and gender composition. "The census is the scaffolding on which you can start to build your family tree and make those family history discoveries," said Crista Cowan, corporate genealogist for Ancestry, the genealogy company.

What is not known for decades, though, is how individuals — by name — answered the census questionnaire given to Americans every 10 years since 1790. That includes where they lived, who they lived with, and what they did for a living. Those answers are confidential for 72 years. But when that confidentiality period ends — as it did on April 1 of this year when the National Archives and Records Administration released the 1950 census — historians and everyday Americans started digging.

Here are the stories of three Long Islanders who have done just that. 

In his yearslong search for information about his biological mother, all he had to start with was a name: Beverly Ann Burtis Strawn.

Adopted at birth in his native California, Weinstein, 70, an insurance broker living in Bellport, has pored over old census records and other documents and used DNA analysis to learn more about her and the rest of his biological family.

"I have a copy of a piece of paper that actually was the court document as part of the adoption that she signed, stating that she was the only person that needed to give assent to the adoption," he said of the document he obtained from his adoptive parents.

Weinstein — a genealogy enthusiast for decades who is vice president of the Genealogy Federation of Long Island — has mapped his adoptive family tree going back centuries. He said he had loving adoptive parents, Evelyn and Leroy Weinstein, who died in 2017 and earlier this year, respectively. He has an adoptive brother as well.

Around 2006-07, he directed his energies toward learning about his biological family. 

He was intrigued to discover that his biological mother's father — his grandfather — was "the fifth generation of his family to go through Annapolis," the naval academy. William Burtis Sr., he said, "commanded the Brooklyn Navy Yard for several years."

But he has "no idea" who his biological father is. DNA analysis presented two possibilities, he said: a father and son who are now deceased. "So that may be a mystery left unsolved."

And he was never able to meet his biological mother; she died in 2007. When a newly discovered cousin sent him a photograph of her in 2016, "I burst into tears. It was the first time I had ever seen a picture of her," Weinstein said.

The 1950 census offered tidbits of Strawn's life. 

He learned she was living with her mother, working as a bookkeeper in a store earning $6,200 in 1949, and her mother earned about $4,000 working in a laundry. 

It lists Weinstein's biological grandmother's surname first: "Burtis, Lydia N." In the adjacent column, the census taker wrote "head," as in head of household. 

Below Burtis' name is "Strawn, Beverly A.," with "daughter" noted in the next column. And below her name is John — Beverly's son and Weinstein's half-brother — who Weinstein said was 10 at the time and had a 12-year-old brother.

"But in 1950, she’s living with one of the two sons. I don’t know where the other one is" then, Weinstein said. 

Both Strawn and her mother were divorced — Strawn in 1946. Weinstein said his mother never remarried, and he was born in 1952. 

Weinstein has learned that his two half-brothers died when they were in their 20s from an inherited kidney disease "that must have come from their father's side." He also found out Strawn gave birth to another son a year after Weinstein, but who died just two days after he was born.

"She’s buried with the three boys at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California," Weinstein said of his mother. "They’re all together in a little plot. I find that fascinating. I really wish I had known more of the story."

She also had given birth to a daughter — Weinstein's half-sister — whom Weinstein learned about through a DNA match and connected with in recent years. She's three years older and also was adopted at birth.

Weinstein added, "My sister and I are the only survivors." 

Weinstein himself has four grown children and six grandchildren.

He thinks Strawn faced "impossible circumstances," and "it was probably better for me that she gave me up for adoption. I would have had a much different life than I have today had I stayed with her."

Nevertheless, the morsels of information about her have been a balm to him. "It gives me a sense of belonging somewhere in the universe," he said.

Birns, of Jericho, said genealogists like herself were thrilled to get their hands on the 1950 census. Genealogists in general, she said, "are an older-skewing population, so the 1950 census will be, for many, the first time they are reflected in a census record. It’s them now, not just their ancestors, in 1950" whom they can research.

Birns was excited to see what she could learn about the early lives of her mother, father and her husband's parents. 

"My mother would say things like, ‘Oh, I think I played with a little girl who lived next door, but I don’t remember her name,'" Birns said of her mother, Doreen Goldberg — her married name is Burnston — who was 4 years old in 1950 and growing up in Brooklyn. "Everybody was in Brooklyn," Birns said.

By 1972, though, when she was 5, Birns' parents had moved to Long Island.

For Birns, 55, an actuary by profession and the immediate past president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Long Island, the 1950 census was the first time the family name on her father's side appeared on such documents.

"My father was born Bernstein, and in 1943, they actually changed the spelling of the name to Anglicize it a little bit. So this also would’ve been the first appearance, I guess, of that name on the census — of Burnston," Birns said.

But the census taker misspelled it as "Burnstone," she pointed out, laughing. 

She also learned that her grandfather Harry made $2,700 in a year as a clerk in the Brooklyn Army base.

"I guess it kind of gives you a sense of place," Birns said of her genealogical pursuits. "It’s learning about people’s lives and how they live."

As a genealogist and historian, Brewster-walker, 80, has been poring over centuries of census records and other documents, getting glimpses into her ancestors as well as the lives of people of color on Long Island.

Before the 1940s and ’50s, Brewster-walker, a Montaukett who is that Indian nation's executive director and government affairs officer, said many people of color on Long Island were listed on census records as baymen, fishermen, coachmen, chauffeurs and servants.

Brewster-walker, who returned to Amityville from New London, Connecticut, during the pandemic, said she's "tracing the movement of people, and you're tracing their lives" through census records.

But she is critical of the way the Census Bureau racially designated some Native Americans in 1950. According to instructions, census takers could identify as "American Indians" those with white and Indian blood who were enrolled on an "Indian Agency or Reservation." But those of mixed "Negro" and Indian ancestry not living in such communities were to be called "Negro."

They "just take away your ancestry," Brewster-walker said.

On the 1950 census, which recorded her at age 7, "they put Negro down," to denote her race and those of her neighbors in her North Amityville neighborhood, with no mention of their native heritage. 

"And that’s basically what the judge did in 1910," she said, referencing a state judge's ruling taking away New York's recognition of Montauketts — something the Indian nation is trying to rectify today.

In tracing her own ancestors, Brewster-walker recalled feeling exhilarated upon finding an ancestor on an old census record while at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., around 1972. 

It was her great-great-grandfather, Willis Augustus Hodges, "a famous abolitionist" born in 1815, she said, who wrote the book, “Free Man of Color.” A Wikipedia citation said he was a journalist and statesman prominent in Brooklyn. 

"Genealogy is important because it kind of tells who we are," Brewster-walker said. "It makes you feel like — when you see your whole family laid out, the genealogy — makes you feel like 'I am a part of America.'"

A Bellport man wanted information about his biological mother. A Jericho woman found out how much her grandfather earned in 1950. And an Amityville woman added to her knowledge of the lives of people of color on Long Island decades ago — but she lamented how a government document erased the Native American heritage of people such as herself.

They all used the 1950 census, released in its entirety this year, for their excavations of family histories. 

Usually about a year after the once-a-decade census is taken, the U.S. Census Bureau releases information providing a statistical portrait of the nation down to its smallest communities. It reveals data such as population counts, race and ethnicity, age, and gender composition. "The census is the scaffolding on which you can start to build your family tree and make those family history discoveries," said Crista Cowan, corporate genealogist for Ancestry, the genealogy company.

What is not known for decades, though, is how individuals — by name — answered the census questionnaire given to Americans every 10 years since 1790. That includes where they lived, who they lived with, and what they did for a living. Those answers are confidential for 72 years. But when that confidentiality period ends — as it did on April 1 of this year when the National Archives and Records Administration released the 1950 census — historians and everyday Americans started digging.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The 1950 census was released by the National Archives and Records Administration in April, upon the expiration of the decades-long confidentiality period.
  • While statistical information from every decennial census is revealed about a year after it's taken, the actual responses of people who answered it remain confidential for 72 years.
  • A Census Bureau expert said the 1950 census "opens a window into the most transformative period in modern history." It can be obtained from the National Archives, as well as genealogy sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch for free.

Here are the stories of three Long Islanders who have done just that. 

Chuck Weinstein

Chuck Weinstein, 70, of Bellport holds a photo of his half sister Linda Albers, 73, when they met for the first time. Weinstein, an adoptee born in 1952, talks about his search into the lives of his biological mother and grandparents on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Credit: Randee Daddona

In his yearslong search for information about his biological mother, all he had to start with was a name: Beverly Ann Burtis Strawn.

Adopted at birth in his native California, Weinstein, 70, an insurance broker living in Bellport, has pored over old census records and other documents and used DNA analysis to learn more about her and the rest of his biological family.

"I have a copy of a piece of paper that actually was the court document as part of the adoption that she signed, stating that she was the only person that needed to give assent to the adoption," he said of the document he obtained from his adoptive parents.

Weinstein — a genealogy enthusiast for decades who is vice president of the Genealogy Federation of Long Island — has mapped his adoptive family tree going back centuries. He said he had loving adoptive parents, Evelyn and Leroy Weinstein, who died in 2017 and earlier this year, respectively. He has an adoptive brother as well.

Around 2006-07, he directed his energies toward learning about his biological family. 

He was intrigued to discover that his biological mother's father — his grandfather — was "the fifth generation of his family to go through Annapolis," the naval academy. William Burtis Sr., he said, "commanded the Brooklyn Navy Yard for several years."

But he has "no idea" who his biological father is. DNA analysis presented two possibilities, he said: a father and son who are now deceased. "So that may be a mystery left unsolved."

And he was never able to meet his biological mother; she died in 2007. When a newly discovered cousin sent him a photograph of her in 2016, "I burst into tears. It was the first time I had ever seen a picture of her," Weinstein said.

The 1950 census offered tidbits of Strawn's life. 

Beverly Burtis Strawn, biological mother of Chuck Weinstein, and Murray Burtis, Weinstein's biological great grandfather, in copies of photos on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Credit: Randee Daddona

He learned she was living with her mother, working as a bookkeeper in a store earning $6,200 in 1949, and her mother earned about $4,000 working in a laundry. 

It lists Weinstein's biological grandmother's surname first: "Burtis, Lydia N." In the adjacent column, the census taker wrote "head," as in head of household. 

Below Burtis' name is "Strawn, Beverly A.," with "daughter" noted in the next column. And below her name is John — Beverly's son and Weinstein's half-brother — who Weinstein said was 10 at the time and had a 12-year-old brother.

"But in 1950, she’s living with one of the two sons. I don’t know where the other one is" then, Weinstein said. 

Both Strawn and her mother were divorced — Strawn in 1946. Weinstein said his mother never remarried, and he was born in 1952. 

Weinstein has learned that his two half-brothers died when they were in their 20s from an inherited kidney disease "that must have come from their father's side." He also found out Strawn gave birth to another son a year after Weinstein, but who died just two days after he was born.

"She’s buried with the three boys at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California," Weinstein said of his mother. "They’re all together in a little plot. I find that fascinating. I really wish I had known more of the story."

She also had given birth to a daughter — Weinstein's half-sister — whom Weinstein learned about through a DNA match and connected with in recent years. She's three years older and also was adopted at birth.

Chuck Weinstein, 70, of Bellport holds a photo of his half sister Linda Albers, 73, when they met for the first time. Weinstein, an adoptee born in 1952, talks about his search into the lives of his biological mother and grandparents on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Credit: Randee Daddona

Weinstein added, "My sister and I are the only survivors." 

Weinstein himself has four grown children and six grandchildren.

He thinks Strawn faced "impossible circumstances," and "it was probably better for me that she gave me up for adoption. I would have had a much different life than I have today had I stayed with her."

Nevertheless, the morsels of information about her have been a balm to him. "It gives me a sense of belonging somewhere in the universe," he said.

Bonnie Birns

Bonnie Birns, the immediate past president of the Jewish Genealogy...

Bonnie Birns, the immediate past president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Long Island, holds photos of her (from left) grandmother Lenore Burnston Cohen, her grandfather Sidney Burnston, her great-grandmother Adele Meller Sohn, and great-great-grandmother Jennie Aronowsky, at her home in Jericho, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Birns, of Jericho, said genealogists like herself were thrilled to get their hands on the 1950 census. Genealogists in general, she said, "are an older-skewing population, so the 1950 census will be, for many, the first time they are reflected in a census record. It’s them now, not just their ancestors, in 1950" whom they can research.

Birns was excited to see what she could learn about the early lives of her mother, father and her husband's parents. 

"My mother would say things like, ‘Oh, I think I played with a little girl who lived next door, but I don’t remember her name,'" Birns said of her mother, Doreen Goldberg — her married name is Burnston — who was 4 years old in 1950 and growing up in Brooklyn. "Everybody was in Brooklyn," Birns said.

By 1972, though, when she was 5, Birns' parents had moved to Long Island.

Bonnie Birns, the immediate past president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Long Island, is using the recently-released 1950 census for her family history research. She shows old family photos and an image of the census she used in her Jericho home, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Credit: Steve Pfost

For Birns, 55, an actuary by profession and the immediate past president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Long Island, the 1950 census was the first time the family name on her father's side appeared on such documents.

"My father was born Bernstein, and in 1943, they actually changed the spelling of the name to Anglicize it a little bit. So this also would’ve been the first appearance, I guess, of that name on the census — of Burnston," Birns said.

But the census taker misspelled it as "Burnstone," she pointed out, laughing. 

She also learned that her grandfather Harry made $2,700 in a year as a clerk in the Brooklyn Army base.

"I guess it kind of gives you a sense of place," Birns said of her genealogical pursuits. "It’s learning about people’s lives and how they live."

Sandi Brewster-walker 

Sandi Brewster-walker is an official with the Montaukett Nation and a...

Sandi Brewster-walker is an official with the Montaukett Nation and a genealogist.

Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

As a genealogist and historian, Brewster-walker, 80, has been poring over centuries of census records and other documents, getting glimpses into her ancestors as well as the lives of people of color on Long Island.

Before the 1940s and ’50s, Brewster-walker, a Montaukett who is that Indian nation's executive director and government affairs officer, said many people of color on Long Island were listed on census records as baymen, fishermen, coachmen, chauffeurs and servants.

Brewster-walker, who returned to Amityville from New London, Connecticut, during the pandemic, said she's "tracing the movement of people, and you're tracing their lives" through census records.

But she is critical of the way the Census Bureau racially designated some Native Americans in 1950. According to instructions, census takers could identify as "American Indians" those with white and Indian blood who were enrolled on an "Indian Agency or Reservation." But those of mixed "Negro" and Indian ancestry not living in such communities were to be called "Negro."

They "just take away your ancestry," Brewster-walker said.

On the 1950 census, which recorded her at age 7, "they put Negro down," to denote her race and those of her neighbors in her North Amityville neighborhood, with no mention of their native heritage. 

"And that’s basically what the judge did in 1910," she said, referencing a state judge's ruling taking away New York's recognition of Montauketts — something the Indian nation is trying to rectify today.

In tracing her own ancestors, Brewster-walker recalled feeling exhilarated upon finding an ancestor on an old census record while at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., around 1972. 

It was her great-great-grandfather, Willis Augustus Hodges, "a famous abolitionist" born in 1815, she said, who wrote the book, “Free Man of Color.” A Wikipedia citation said he was a journalist and statesman prominent in Brooklyn. 

"Genealogy is important because it kind of tells who we are," Brewster-walker said. "It makes you feel like — when you see your whole family laid out, the genealogy — makes you feel like 'I am a part of America.'"