Discovering Your African American Heritage

african-american-family-walking

“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we have come from.” These words from Alex Haley, author of Roots, resonate with everyone. But they may be particularly poignant if you have African American ancestry.

The African American story is one of adversity and courage, of injustice and the long fight for equality, of past pain and present healing.

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The African American Odyssey

a historic photo of two African American men

In 1619, a group of about 20 Africans arrived in the Virginia Colonies. In name, they were indentured servants (slavery was not legal in the colonies at that time), working in return for room, board, and eventual release from servitude. Contracts for indentured servants typically required four to seven years of labor. However, African indentured servants usually worked without benefit of written contracts, which left them at the mercy of their taskmasters. Many were required to work 15 to 20 years before being granted their freedom.

From so-called indentured servitude, the path was short to slavery, which began to be legalized in parts of the Americas in the mid-1600s. Africans were captured in raids and then transported across the Atlantic and sold to landowners and others looking for a low-cost labor source. However, the cost was anything but low to the approximately 450,000 Africans enslaved in the United States from the mid-1600s until the 1860s.

Although opposition to slavery grew over time, the journey to end slavery was long and difficult. Progress was made in 1808, when the United States Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise banned slavery west of Missouri and north of Missouri’s southern border. The Underground Railroad, aided by brave women and men such as Harriet Tubman and William Still, helped thousands of enslaved individuals reach freedom and further weakened the culture of enslavement. Finally, in 1863, slavery formally ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Healing the wounds of slavery has been an ongoing process. Activists such as Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks played a key role in helping America face racial inequality and move toward change. A formal apology by the United States House of Representatives in 2008 was welcomed by many and long overdue. But perhaps the most striking example has come from descendants of the enslaved and their enslavers, who, generations later, work together to help heal the trauma of slavery.

African American Culture

Despite efforts of enslavers to strip the enslaved of their cultural identity, various African traditions survived and continue to enrich American culture today. Musical genres with African origins include spirituals (hymns that blend African and European elements), ragtime, jazz, blues, soul, hip hop, and more.

louis armstrong performs on the trumpet.

Authors such as Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou made integral contributions to American culture as they helped capture the African American experience in their written works.

Holidays and observances related to African American culture include Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, African American Music Appreciation Month, and Kwaanza. Especially significant is Emancipation Day, also referred to as Juneteenth or Freedom Day. This holiday commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation and provides an opportunity for people of all races to reflect on the heritage and achievements of African Americans.

Fittingly, museums such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture and others preserve and honor the richness of African American culture.

Reconnecting with Africa

For centuries, Africa has had a strong oral tradition. Chiefs of clans and villages have kept family genealogies alive from generation to generation. These oral traditions are being lost, though, as younger people leave for the cities. So a team from FamilySearch International is working hard to preserve oral histories as they interview and record the words of village and clan chiefs. It is estimated that these African oral genealogies will include some 250 million names.

As DNA testing becomes more widely used and sophisticated, these oral genealogies may provide one more link to the past for those of African descent.

africans record their oral heritage.

Do you want to learn more about your African American heritage?

Honor your past and enrich your present by connecting with your African American heritage!

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About the Author
Kathryn is a writer, teacher, and family history enthusiast. Her specialty is mentoring new family historians and helping them find success—and maybe even avoid some of the mistakes she's made. She believes that with the right guidance, everyone can learn to love and do family history.