In 1940, the office-tower core of downtown Washington, D.C., was the black section of town; much of Southeast was entirely white; the suburbs did not exist and almost no one went to college.
Houses in the Washington area were then, as now, far more expensive than in other parts of the country: A whopping $8,600 median price in the District, $5,000 in Fairfax County and slightly less in Prince George’s County, a detailed Washington Times analysis of U.S. Census data from 1940 showed.
There were more clergymen than policemen; 3,000 professional elevator operators; and only 6,500 lawyers.
“There’s more than that in one office now,” joked Nancy McDowell, 89.
Both the Maryland and Virginia surroundings were more than 85 percent white. On the Maryland side, nearly 1 in 5 lived on a farm.
The differences between city life — 11,000 people were packed into each square mile in the District — and town existence were stark. In Montgomery County, the population density was 170 per square mile, with Prince George’s slightly higher. In Fairfax, it was fewer than 100.
Montgomery was the new community of choice, with homes valued at $8,215 and residents averaging more than an impressive 12 years of schooling, compared with less than 10 years in Fairfax and the District and fewer than nine in Prince George’s.
The years of school that D.C. residents did get were solid, at both the black and the white schools, said Vernon Tancil, 84, who grew up on a block with a black lawyer and the heads of the anatomy and dental departments at Howard University.
In Frederick and Howard counties, most people had an eighth-grade education, and everywhere, girls got more schooling than boys, even though — or perhaps because — 6 in 10 women did not work.
“Once you got out of high school you figured you could read, write and talk, so you could get a job,” said R. Barbara Adams, 85. “You never dreamed the day would come that you could go to college and be waiting tables.” Then again, she added, “some of these coming out of school now can’t read, write or talk.”
In far-off Loudoun County, residents enjoyed fewer privileges of civilized life. Only half owned homes, which cost about $2,830, and fewer had refrigerators. People lived 39 to a square mile.
Regionally, 82 percent of the residents were at least second-generation Americans; 6 percent were born abroad. Of about 1 million people in the area, there were, at most, 4,000 Hispanics.
The city was not the famously transient place it is today. Nearly 80 percent of D.C. residents had been here at least five years, but almost half of Maryland and Virginia residents were new arrivals — about half of those from the District.
The median yearly wage for a worker was $1,250, and only 10,000 people in the region earned $5,000 or more.
Thirty-five percent of workers were employed by the government, 56 percent worked for private firms, 7.5 percent worked for themselves, and 1.2 percent were employers themselves.
Fourteen percent of married women surveyed in 1940 had been married at the age of 17 or younger; the most common age of marriage was 20.