Census records aren’t just for family history. They help us learn about historical persons, communities, and the social and economic condition of our country. Grosvenor Room staff decided to see what we could find out about Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1940 census. The facts that we found from the census are noted through the listing of what census record column in which we found the information.
Seen above is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1940 census record. Reverend King’s household is on line numbers 59-66. At the time, King was eleven years old and his family resided at 501 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta (cols. 1-2), which was also King’s birthplace. The home still stands, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Auburn Avenue is part of the Sweet Auburn Historic District. Sweet Auburn was the hub of Atlanta’s African American religion, business, entertainment, and prosperity before the Civil Rights Era. Further inspecting the record shows how King’ family fit in with their community. His father, Martin L. King, Sr., was a pastor and his mother, Alberta Williams King, was a church music director and pianist (cols. 28-29). Column 14 shows that they both completed four years of college, which was uncommon for African Americans of this time period. The census also records that the family owned their house (col. 4) and that Martin Luther King, Sr., was paid $2500 a year in wages (col. 32), which is more than triple or quadruple the amount of most of his neighbors. $2500 in today’s wages computes to about $43,000 a year.
Aside from his parents, King also lived with his older sister Willie Christine, his younger brother Alfred, his aunt Ida, his grandmother Jennie, and a lodger named Carrie Rutland, a servant who may have also worked for the family (col. 7). About a year after this census was taken, Jennie died. Twelve-year-old Martin was so bereaved and guilt-ridden, because he was very close to her and went to an event without permission just before she died, that he attempted suicide by jumping out of the home’s second story window. Many people don’t know about Reverend King’s struggled with mental illness throughout his life, and if we thought he was a strong man before knowing that personal fact, he certainly seems even stronger after learning about it.
For more information about the incredible life and accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., see the King Center website.
To learn how to access census records through the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, consult our census guide.