African Americans in Court Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Courts—whether local, county, state, or federal—can serve many roles. For each of these functions, corresponding records should exist. You should conduct research into the court system of your ancestral locale, to discover the structure and jurisdiction of the local courts. Below are several ways in which court records may help your research.

  • Criminal courts: Research the laws concerning African Americans, both free and slave, in your area. Violators of these laws were usually charged with a crime, and these criminal records can provide much information about the people of the past. For example, in many areas, prior to the Civil War, “negro bastardy” was a crime with a very stiff punishment. This crime entailed a free white woman bearing a “mulatto” child, and may have resulted in the enslavement of the child, the mother, or both, either for life or until the child reached the age of majority. In other areas, a multitude of crimes were enacted during different time periods, affecting both free and enslaved African Americans, such as interracial marriage, the sale of slaves out-of-state, importing slaves without permission, the failure of free blacks to register, etc. Most of these charges would have brought criminal action, and records should exist for them all.
  • Chancery or equity courts: Though the probate process for most estates was fairly routine and uneventful, sometimes heirs could not agree upon the distribution of their legacies. Cases before could have been brought amicably by all of the heirs jointly or separately, or in a bitter legal battle. Though usually concerned with the division of land, quite often these courts oversaw the division and distribution of other assets, including slaves.
  • Civil courts: Though extremely rare, there were cases of slaves suing for their freedom. And if your ancestor was free, there may have been even more occasion for his participation in a lawsuit, either as a party to the suit, or as a witness in the case. A deposition may include such information as age, present or former residences, and other facts that may have been relevant to the particular case.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.