African American Family History Step By Step

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Few areas of American genealogy research pose as much of a challenge as they search for African American families. The vast majority of African Americans are descendants of the 400,000 Black Africans brought to North America to serve as enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since enslaved people had no legal rights, they are often not found in many of the traditional record sources available for that period. Don't let this challenge defer you, however. Treat your search for your African American roots just as you would any other genealogical research project; start with what you know and methodically take your research back step-by-step. Tony Burroughs, an internationally known genealogist, and Black history expert has identified six steps to follow when tracing your African American roots.

01
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Take Your Family Back to 1870

1870 is an important date for African American research because the majority of African Americans living in the United States prior to the Civil War were enslaved. The 1870 federal census is the first one to list all Black people by name. To get your African American ancestors back to that date you should research your ancestors in the standard genealogical records - records such as cemeteries, wills, census, vital records, social security records, school records, tax records, military records, voter records, newspapers, etc. There are also a number of post-Civil War records that specifically document thousands of African Americans, including the Freedman's Bureau Records and the records of the Southern Claim Commission.

02
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Identify the Last Enslaver

Before you assume that your ancestors were enslaved prior to the U.S. Civil War, think twice. At least one out of every 10 Black people (more than 200,000 in the North and another 200,000 in the South) were free when the Civil War broke out in 1861. If you aren't sure whether your ancestors were enslaved prior to the Civil War, then you may want to start with the U.S. Free Population Schedules of the 1860 census. For those whose ancestors were enslaved, the next step is to identify the enslaver. Some enslaved people took the name of their former enslavers when they were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, but many did not. You will have to really dig in the records to find and prove the name of the enslaver for your ancestors before you can go any further with your research.

03
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Research Potential Enslavers

Because enslaved people were considered to be property, your next step once you find the enslaver (or even a number of potential enslavers), is to follow the records to learn what he did with his property. Look for wills, probate records, plantation records, bills of sale, land deeds and even freedom seekers advertisements in newspapers. You should also study your history - learn about the practices and laws which governed enslavement and what life was like for enslaved people and enslavers in the antebellum South. Unlike what is common belief, the majority of enslavers were not wealthy plantation owners and most owned five enslaved people or fewer.

04
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Back to Africa

The vast majority of Americans of African ancestry in the United States are descendants of the 400,000 enslaved Black people forcibly brought to the New World prior to 1860. Most of them came from a small section (approximately 300 miles long) of the Atlantic coast between the Congo and Gambia rivers in East Africa. Much of African culture is based on oral tradition, but records such as sales of enslaved people and advertisements for those sales may give a clue toward the origins of this institution in Africa.

Getting your enslaved ancestor back to Africa may just not be possible, but your best chances lie with scrutinizing every record you can find for clues and by being familiar with the trade of enslaved people in the area in which you are researching. Learn everything you can about how, when and why enslaved people were transported to the state in which you last found them with their enslaver. If your ancestors came into this country, then you will need to learn the history of the Underground Railroad so that you can track their movements back and forth the border.

05
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From the Caribbean

Since the end of World War II, a significant number of people of African ancestry have emigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean, where their ancestors were also enslaved (primarily at the hands of the British, Dutch, and French). Once you have determined that your ancestors came from the Caribbean, you will need to trace Caribbean records back to their source of origin and then back to Africa. You will also need to be very familiar with the history of the trade of enslaved people into the Caribbean.