Baby Names In the 1940 Census: Turns Out My Grandparents Were Trendy

Records from the 1940 Census are being released online today by the U.S. National Archives after 72 years of confidentiality expires—which means details of the lives of more than 21 million people living in the U.S. and Puerto Rico will be available to anyone who wants to take a peek into families and trends transformed by the Great Depression and the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the North. Though the jury is still out on just how well Census records documented black folk—finding solid genealogy information about people who were counted as cattle rather than humans can be tricky, at best—I’ve already found one interesting jewel about my parents that made me giggle: their names, James and Bettye, were two of the most popular for babies of their time.

According to a study conducted by the genealogy website to mark the government’s release of the 1940 Census records, James was the most popular name for boys, and Betty was the fifth most popular for girls. Which basically means that both sets of my grandparents were following the trends when they named their babies.

“Baby  names  are  like  period  pieces,”  says  Josh  Taylor,  a  leading  genealogist  and   spokesperson  for  “Some  recall  a  particular  era,  which  can  make   them  useful  clues  for  researching  family  history.  Indeed,  you  can  sometimes  guess   roughly  when  someone  was  born  simply  by  their  first  name.  In  such  cases,  names   can  be  to  genealogy  what  carbon-­dating  is  to  archaeology.”

Of course, the name Betty has dropped off the baby name radar; though some of the most popular celebrities born in the 20s and 30s sported the name—Betty Boop (1930), Betty White (1922), Betty Friedan (1921), Betty Crocker (1921), Betty Grable (1916)—the name Betty didn’t even make the top 1,000 in 2010. But James is still a popular name; it landed at No. 19 on the 2010 list of popular baby names, following in the footsteps of famous actors born in era,  like James Earl Jones (1931) James Brown (1933), James Caan (1940), James Brolin (1940).

When my babies show up in public Census records decades from now—much like the hoopla surrounding the release of the 1940s Census records—their names most likely won’t be on anyone’s “most popular” lists. Not because I named them something wholly made up or tossed in a bunch of q’s and u’s and z’s to distinguish them (one of these days, I’m going to bravely write the post about why Nick and I strayed from names that easily identified our daughters as black), but because the names we chose for our daughters are, in Mari’s case, distinctive, feminine, meaningful and rare, and in Lila’s case, pay homage to my grandmother and mother, whose names appear nowhere near the top of popular baby names of today. Still, I love their names all the same. And I adore that Bettye and Jimmy have a ring of popularity to them, too.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Great! I’ve been waiting for this to be released.

  2. i LOVE the name Lila!! it was on my list when i was pregnant with my daughter but my husband nixed it – i’m hoping my sister uses it one day!

  3. You can definitely tell when someone was born by their name! My grandmothers are Bettye Anne & Lillie Mae lol (1942 & 1938).

  4. My ex-husband’s grandmother was Betty, and my great-grandmother was Betty, so when our daughter was born, I really wanted to consider Betty, but with an “i” to make it cute – BETTI. Everybody poo-poo’d me, even my mom, saying it was an old lady’s name. But I really think my daughter could have carried it well since she’s wise and sassy.

  5. Love the photo! I love names (and am in the process of picking out a new one for my unborn) and your quote about names being “to genealogy what carbon-­dating is to archaeology” – so true and so cool. But also a little scary, haha. We may think we’re being all unique when we name a child Blue or Apple but in 50 years, our children are probably all just going to say, well, that was what the (20)10’s were like, everybody did that.

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