African American Resources

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

Introduction[edit | edit source]

The first blacks were brought to the United States in 1619 by Dutch traders. Contrary to popular belief, not all blacks labored as slaves in the fields of the large Southern plantations. Many worked for smaller land owners, some worked as servants in the cities, and some were free. By the Civil War period, the descendants of less than 400,000 transplanted Africans numbered over 4 million. Read more about slave records at

African American Image 5.jpg

Researching nonplantation blacks or slaves requires great patience and luck as slaves were not considered citizens of the United States and were not permitted to engage in legal transactions. Marriage contracts between blacks were legally forbidden until 1868. Since slaves were considered property of their owner, most records (such as deeds, wills, etc.) are interfiled with those of the owner's family. Sole ownership of all slave children legally resided with the owner of the child's mother, thus research is often limited to the maternal lines.

Blacks were seldom addressed by a surname; instead they were usually listed by a first name, or as a "Black Male" or "Black Female." Once slavery ended and usage of surnames became legal, exslaves were free to use either their previous name (usually known to them, but not used in records) or to choose a new one. Obstacles arose when several members of one biological family adopted different last names.

Did You Know?[edit | edit source]

  • African American historical research can be undertaken in both military and civilian records; however, the documentation is scattered through a variety of correspondence of government and private citizens and government reports. One's success in researching African-American ancestry in the years prior to the Civil War will depend largely on what one's status was, slave or free by going to the National Archives website.

Resources[edit | edit source]

Useful Websites[edit | edit source]

Books[edit | edit source]

  • African American Digital Bookshelf - a growing list of digital books on FamilySearch and other websites
  • Newman, Debra L. List of Black servicemen compiled from the War Department collection of Revolutionary War records. Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Service. General Services Administration, 1974. (Digital version here)
  • Newman, Debra L. List of free Black heads of families in the first census of the United States, 1790. Salt Lake City, Utah : Digitized by FamilySearch International, 2015. (Digital version here)
  • Ross, Joseph B. Tabular analysis of the records of the U.S. colored troops and their predecessor units in the National Archives of the United States. Washington, D.C. : NARS, 1973. (Digital version here)

African American Genealogy Presentations[edit | edit source]

Many presentations from the 2006 AAHGS Conference (Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society) are now available to download and view for free. These are large files (200-400 MB each) and must be downloaded before viewing. Files are optimized for viewing with the free Quicktime media player available at download a presentation, please right click the link and select 'Save Target As' or 'Save Link As'.

Dr. Quintard Taylor, Jr., Author and Professor of American History, University of Washington
Presentation: Roots West: African American History in the Trans-Mississippi West
Mary Hill, Author and accredited genealogist for Southern and Eastern States
Presentation: Finding Records of Your Ancestors: 1870 to Present
Beth Wilson, Reference librarian for land records, African-American genealogy, and documentation research
Presentation: Trails Back: Tracing Ancestors in Slavery through Census, Probate, and Land Research
Dr. Spencer Crew, Director of the National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.
Presentation: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: Activities and Accomplishments
Angela Walton Raji, Author and avid African–Native American genealogist
Presentation: Beyond the Dawes Rolls: Black Indian Ancestry East of the Mississippi
Adele Marcum, Professional genealogist and content specialist
Presentation: Where Should I Start? Beginning Research on
Howard Dodson, Chief, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library
Presentation: Beyond Victimization: The Triumph Over Slavery