African American Family History Step By Step

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Introduction & Family Sources

African-American woman in home office with tablet
mother image/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Few areas of American genealogy research pose as much of a challenge as the 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 slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since slaves 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.

Step One: Family Sources

Just as with any genealogy research project, you begin with yourself. Write down everything you know about yourself and your family members. Scour your house for sources of information such as photographs, postcards, letters, diaries, school yearbooks, family papers, insurance and employment records, military records, scrapbooks, even textiles such as old clothing, quilts or samplers. Interview your family members - especially the oldest ones who may have had grandparents, or even parents who were slaves. Be sure to ask open-ended questions so that you learn more than just names and dates. Pay special attention to any family, ethnic or naming traditions which have been handed down from generation to generation.

Additional Resources:
Intro to Genealogy: Lesson Two - Family Sources
Oral History Step by Step
Top 6 Tips for Great Interview Stories
5 Steps for Identifying People in Old Photographs

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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 slaves. The 1870 federal census is the first one to list all blacks 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 which specifically document thousands of African Americans, including the Freedman's Bureau Records and the records of the Southern Claim Commission.

Additional Resources:
How to Begin & Create Your First Family Tree
Beginner's Guide to the U.S. Census
Top 10 Search Tips for Census Success

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Identify the Last Slave Owner

Before you assume that your ancestors were slaves prior to the U.S. Civil War, think twice. At least one out of every ten Blacks (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 African American ancestors were slaves then the next step is to identify the slave owner. Some slaves took the name of their former owners 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 slave owner for your ancestors before you can go any further with your research. Sources for this information include county histories, the records of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Bureau, the Freedman's Bureau, slave narratives, the Southern Claims Commission, military records including the records of the U.S. Colored Troops.

Additional Resources:
Freedman's Bureau Online
Civil War Soldiers & Sailors - includes the U.S. Colored Troops
The Southern Claims Commission: A Source for African American Roots - an article

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Research Potential Slave Owners

Because slaves were considered to be property, your next step once you find the slave owner (or even a number of potential slave owners), 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 runaway slave advertisements in newspapers. You should also study your history - learn about the practices and laws which governed slavery and what life was like for slaves and slave owners in the antebellum South. Unlike what is common belief, the majority of slave owners were not wealthy plantation owners and most owned five slaves or less.

Additional Resources:
Probing into Probate Records & Wills
Digging Up Family History in Deed Records
Plantation Records

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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 black slaves forcibly brought to the New World prior to 1860. Most of these slaves 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 slave sales and slave advertisements may give a clue toward slave origins in Africa. Getting your slave 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 slave trade in the area in which you are researching. Learn everything you can about how, when and why slaves were transported to the state in which you last found them with their owner. 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.

Additional Resources:
African Genealogy
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
History of Slavery in the United States

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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 slaves (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 slave trade into the Caribbean

Additional Resources:
Caribbean Genealogy

The information discussed in this article is just the tip of the iceberg of the vast scope of African American genealogy research. For a much greater expansion on the six steps discussed here, you should read Tony Burroughs' wonderful book, "Black Roots: A Beginner's Guide to Tracing the African-American Family Tree."