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African American Resources[edit | edit source]

Information from: Linder, Bill R. "Black Genealogy: Basic Steps to Research". Technical Leaflet 36 no.2 (February 1981).

In genealogy, always start with the known and work toward the unknown.

The first step in African American research is to interview relatives. Older relatives may have names, dates, or places essential to extending the family line backwards, information that may not have been found elsewhere. In many instances, African American families kept fewer paper records than other families, making the knowledge of relatives especially important. While photographs may be scarce, the memory of an ancestor may provide the same, essential information.

In the interview process:

  • Make sure to record it in good quality
  • Schedule interviews, don't just show up - and tell them about the topics you want to discuss
  • Think of questions beforehand (to get the information you want)
    • Important things to learn about: trades, hobbies, goals, religion, physical descriptions, jobs
    • Important things to learn about: locations of homes, who owned them, who was in the family, role of grandparents
    • Important things to learn about: family stories about the slave days, was their great-grandfather a slave, did your family name come from a white plantation owner, etc.
    • Make sure to record this as well as names, dates, places, and other clues
  • Learn more about the relative before interviewing, so you can ask the right questions and so you know what to expect

In addition to interviewing relatives, gathering home sources is also essential. Such sources include: bibles, newspaper clippings, birth/marriage/death certificates, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia. Look in the homes of parents, other close relatives, and in cemeteries where family members were buried.

Next, look at the census. The federal census is the next place to look. The 1870 census was the first time in which all African Americans were listed by name. Before 1870, only freed blacks were listed in the census. The census lists families together, so by finding an ancestor in the census, their family relationships (after 1880), along with names, ages, and birthplaces, is also found. Occupations are also listed. For more information about the census, see African American Census.

Then, look at state records of birth and death. In New England, such records began, in most cases, at the creation of the town. For everywhere else in the United States, state birth and death records officially started in the late 1800s or early 1900s. These records should be found and ordered because they name parents, dates, and places. Keep in mind that the accuracy of the information on the death certificate is based on the informant, usually a next of kind (like spouse or child).

Next, look at county records. Historically, counties were responsible for the creation and preservation of marriages, deeds, wills, and other records. Records of African American marriages after 1865 are generally available on the town or county courthouse. The succession of property is reflected in wills and deeds and can be helpful in proving family relationships. County court minutes might also mention ancestors. The county court dealt with a variety of issues, such as employment. The courthouse mainly dealt with property holders, so do not be discouraged if an ancestor is not found in these records. Many of these records are available on the FamilySearch Catalog and at county courthouses.

Search church records. Religion played an important role in the lives of many African Americans, Where available, search through church records. In order to do this, the religion of an ancestor must be known, followed by researching to learn if that particular church kept records and, if so, where they were located. A personal visit to the church, and it's adjacent cemetery, may be necessary. Some African Americans were members of white churches; they may be buried in designated spots in these church cemeteries.

Look at military records. African Americans have served in all wars. They may be found in Revolutionary War records, Civil War records, and World War I and II records. Information in these records ranges from pitiful to quite full. Pension records offer the most information on the man and, often, his family. Information on compiled military service records is often limited. Many of these records are available online.

Essentially, African American research projects follow the same procedure as other ancestry projects in the United States until about 1870. Going beyond 1870 to the slavery period, where most African Americans are not found in records, is a greater challenge. The greater availability of records is usually dependent on the family's wealth, property, position, and education. Research during the slave period will be difficult. Oral interviews or home sources may be able to pinpoint a particular place to start searching for ancestors or may pinpoint the name of the last slave owners prior to emancipation.

--Use white family records as resources. To do this, the slaveowners need to be identified. Research can then be undertaken to find all records relating to that owner. Deeds, bills of sale, wills, and probate records of the owner may reveal information about his slaves. The migration pattern of white families often reflect the migrations of slaves (as well as those newly-freed after the emancipation). Other records from the slave owner's family that should be researched: diaries, family bibles, letters, plantation records, and any other existing records. These records may include entries relating to the slaves the family possessed.

--Manumissions. Manumissions are documents granting freedom. The Pennsylvania Historical Society is one repository with thousands of manumissions that were granted before the Civil War. Remember that although some slaves took the family name of their former owners after emancipation, not all slaves did. Many slaves took the surname from popular figures in American history, such as Washington or Jefferson.

--Freedmen Bureau records Also know this stuff.

Research Strategy:

  1. Gather information from home, family, and compile sources
  2. Look for ancestors in federal records
  3. Censuses: 1940, 1920, 1910, 1900, 1880, 1870, and 1860
    Military records: WWII, WWI, Civil War
    State censuses, mortality and veteran schedules
  4. Look for ancestors in state and county records
  5. Church, cemetery, vital, land & property, narratives, history, directories
  6. Establish where the ancestor lived in 1862
  7. Timeline
    Slave narratives
  8. Determine if ancestor was free or slave in 1862
    • If free
      1. Search records for free African Americans
      2. Censuses: 1860 and 1850
        Church records
      3. Determine if each earlier ancestor was born free or born a slave
      4. Search for release from slavery papers
      5. Manumission
        Court records
      6. If an ancestor was a slave, look below
    • If a slave in 1862
      1. Use emancipation transition records to learn who the owner was
      2. Freedman's Bureau
      3. Search the slave owner's records
      4. Probate
        Slave schedules
        Census records
        Slave sales
        Plantation records
      5. If possible, trace back to Africa
      6. Slave ships