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The story of us: Roberta Coward

The 1940 Census “gives you a story,” says

The 1940 Census “gives you a story,” says Roberta Coward of Freeport. “It ties together the stories that we’ve been told.” (May 24, 2012) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

For Roberta Coward, 90 Liberty Ave. in Freeport was the starting point.

Her immediate family is recorded right there on the 1940 Census form. She was fortunate they were among the counted, because the 1940 Census was known to have missed about 1 million blacks — classified as Negro on that census. Race categories have changed over the years, with the 2010 Census giving blacks the choice between Black, African American or Negro.

She read from a photocopy of an image from the census, reciting the names recorded by an anonymous census taker while pointing at each family member.

"This is my father, William [Dessaure], [mother] Mable, my older sister Alice, William Jr. [a brother], that's my sister Caroline and that's my brother Jack, who was 3 months old. I didn't come until '41," said Coward, 70, explaining why she is not on that census. Her parents would have eight children before Coward's mother died in childbirth in 1948.

Coward also remembered the names of several neighbors who lived in what she said they all called the "big house" -- an apartment building that no longer stands.

The census provided evidence of African Americans' "Great Migration" north as Coward's finger moved down the column of the page noting place of birth. "South Carolina" was written in row after row for most of the heads of households, including her parents.

"It's a journey into the past of old Freeport. I think that's what excites me the most," said Coward, a retired New York State corrections superintendent who now sells real estate part time.

She recalled a time when many of Freeport's black residents chartered a bus once a year to take them back to St. Stephen, S.C.

Coward said her father, who arrived in Freeport as a teenager in the 1920s, took that chartered bus back to South Carolina in the 1930s, married Coward's mother and brought her to Freeport.

The census recorded her mother was a domestic, and her father worked as a sewer laborer, earning $510 the prior year.

Coward said her father also worked other jobs not recorded by the census taker. "He was the person in the building .?.?. who fixed everything. He was the handyman," she said. "And on Sunday mornings, our living room became the barbershop." She said he did the barbering before he and the family headed to church.

Coward's eyes sparkled as she flipped through a black binder containing photocopies of census records going back decades, old photographs and handwritten notes of her genealogical search over the past half-dozen years. A smile never left her face.

Every scrap of information gleaned from the census is important to her. "It gives you a connection. It gives you a story," Coward said. "It ties together the stories that we've been told. It gives you a sense of who you are and a tremendous feeling of pride. I've always felt that there's nothing that I can't do."

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