Researching Black history in the 1921 Census

When researching the census, it can be hard to know where to start – particularly when trying to research Black history. For example, there is no information gathered through the census – up to and including 1921 – regarding ethnicity. So, while it is possible to draw conclusions about someone, the evidence is not explicit, and the answers are not definite from this source alone. Here are a few pointers for researching black history in the census, that may help you find what you’re looking for.

A black and white photo of Evelyn Dove; Evelyn is sitting, her face shown in profile as she faces left. She is wearing a suit and tie, and has a short hairstyle.

Evelyn Dove – © The Stephen Bourne Collection – Mary Evans Picture Library

Looking to see where someone lists as their place of birth may suggest that they have black heritage. For example, if someone lists a place in the Caribbean or in Africa as their place of birth, then they may have Black heritage. Evelyn Dove, singer and performer – and one of our 20 People of the 20s – was born to a Sierra Leonean barrister, Francis. We can tell that he came from Sierra Leone thanks to census records, however this alone would not tell us about his, or Evelyn’s, ethnicity. In short, particularly given the extent of the British Empire at this point in time, place of birth alone is not evidence enough. We know that there were sizable populations of white people in both Africa and the Caribbean, as well as extant black communities in the UK, so details of a place of birth are inconclusive.

It may also be possible to draw conclusions based on people’s names, though bear in mind that names may have been written down incorrectly by someone else when a census form was filled in, or the details were transferred to the enumerator’s copy. Different naming traditions may provide key links to an individual’s heritage, and these may be present in the census.

If you are interested in searching for people who list a particular place as their place of birth in the 1921 Census, then these starting tips may help:

• Use wildcards to aid your searching: Bris* will bring up Bristol, Brisley, and Brislington, amongst others, for example.

• Familiarise yourself with the names countries or cities were called in and before 1921, as they may have changed since then.

This page was produced as part of Black History Month – find out more: Black History Month 2022

Learn more about researching Black British history here: Black British history on record

Discover Evelyn Dove’s story here: Evelyn Dove – 20 People of the 20s