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Researching African American Genealogy

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African American Genealogy Wiki Topics
African American Image 5.jpg
Beginning Research
Original Records
Compiled Sources
Background Information
Finding Aids

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

African American research in the United States is similar to other U.S. genealogical projects until about 1870. In genealogy, always start with the known and work towards the unknown.

It is important to note that no matter how much time and money you spend on your research, unless you are organized, you will frustrate yourself and your opportunity for finding the truth about your family. There are many free, quality family tree software programs that can be used to organize your research. Take advantage of the opportunity and get started today!

Research Steps[edit | edit source]

There are seven easy steps to begin your research:

Step One: Start With Yourself[edit | edit source]

Identify what you already know. Start with yourself and work backward in time by filling in as much information as you can, by memory, on a pedigree chart. Try to fill out full names (including maiden names for women), relationships, and dates and locations for births, marriages, and deaths.

Step Two: Gather Family Information[edit | edit source]

Gather home sources (birth certificates, marriage licenses, deeds, etc.) and family information. Look in the homes of parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Gather records that show family names; dates of birth, marriage, and death; places; or relationships. Older relatives will likely have more records and information than others.

Records may include:

  • Bibles
  • Newspaper clippings
  • Birth, marriage, death certificates
  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Scrapbooks

Also look at compiled sources for any information about the family.

Step Three: Interview Your Relatives[edit | edit source]

Interview relatives, both those who live nearby and those who live faraway. Interview them either by phone or in person. Make sure to interview the eldest living relatives; their knowledge can often fill in gaps when records become scarce.

When conducting oral interviews:

  • Set up appointment (by phone for those who live far away and in person for those who live near).
  • Prepare questions beforehand.
  • Record the interview (ask for permission beforehand).
  • Write down notes afterwards.
  • Compare memories between relatives.
  • Fill out family group sheets to organize ancestors according to the information learned.

Topics to cover in interviews:

  • When and where things happened. Location is key in genealogical research.
  • Relationships
  • Names (including maiden names, nicknames, spellings, etc.)

Be aware of sensitive topics for the interviewee.

Step Four: Write for Copies of Records[edit | edit source]

With the information learned from the records found and interviews conducted, obtain copies of more records. These records will help prove relationships and extend the family line further. Some may be online, but others may need to be ordered from county courthouses or state vital records offices.

Such records include:

  • Birth, death, marriage, divorce
  • Courthouse Information
  • Land/probate deeds, conveyances, affidavit of heirship, guardianship
  • Tax records (includes slave information)
  • Voter registration
  • Social security administration

Step Five: Follow Up On Death Record Clues[edit | edit source]

  • Legal name of descendant
  • Marital status
  • Parent(s) names(s)
  • Date and place of birth and death
  • Who verified death
  • Funeral home that handled remains
  • Cemetery
  • Verification of social security number

Step Six: Search the Census[edit | edit source]

Federal census records are taken every ten years and are available from 1790 through 1940. Only the head of household was listed from 1790 to 1840. Starting in 1850, every member of the household was listed. Starting in 1880, relationships to the head of household were added. The 1870 census is the first one in which all African Americans were listed. Some state census records are also available depending on the state.

Census records usually list:

  • Name, age, race
  • Relationship to head of household
  • Occupation
  • House number
  • Literacy
  • Military experience
  • Home/farm ownership
  • Value of property

Begin searching with the name of a person you know who would have been included in the 1940 census. If you have trouble finding the person, look for siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. Most families lived only a few doors from each other.

Search Other Federal Records - National Archives[edit | edit source]

Records of African- American History

Besides the census, there are other federal records to look for:

  • Military records (especially pension records)
  • Mortality and veteran schedules
  • Social Security Death Index

Step Seven: Search State and County Records[edit | edit source]

In many cases, state and county records are the best sources for finding information. Most states and counties have an archives office. Many of these records are online, but some may only be accessible at the archives.

State and county records may include:

  • State censuses
  • Church records
  • Cemetery records
  • Vital records
  • Land and property records
  • Narratives, histories
  • Directories
  • Voter registration cards
  • Tax lists (this is important for slavery research)
  • Wills and probate
  • Criminal and civil proceedings

Societies[edit | edit source]


Related Articles[edit | edit source]

  • Char McCargo Bah. Starting Your African American Research. NGS Magazine 33 #4 (October-December 2007): 20-22.
  • James Petty. Black Slavery Emancipation Research in the Northern States. National Genealogical Society Quarterly 100 #4 (December 2012): 293-304 FHL 973 B2ng

Websites[edit | edit source]

Resources[edit | edit source]