Beginning Your African American Family Research, Sources Outside Your Home (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 ($).

Once you have completed the household research, interviewed your family members, and compiled the information that you have collected, you will begin to venture outside the home and collect other sources.

First, you must determine what sources might be available for information, and where these sources are currently kept.

The organization of government records varies from state to state. Some records are available at the state level of government, others at the county, and still others at the town level. Your first order of business is to investigate what records are available in the county and state of your residence, and the places where your family has lived.

Government records are only one source for the evidence you will invariably need in your research, however. Other sources of information include:

  • Cemeteries, both tombstones themselves and the records in the cemetery office.
  • Churches, including membership lists, baptismal records, marriage records, and funeral records.
  • Funeral homes.
  • Newspapers, including obituaries, marriage notices, and other published articles.
  • City directories.
  • Published county histories.

These are by no means all of the possible sources of information, but merely some of the more common non-government records. Some of these records have been digitized and are available online. Others are available at historical societies or the state archives. You will want to look into the availability of these and other records for the locations that you are researching.

The following online sources provide detailed genealogical information on U.S. localities, generally organized by county and state:

This website is comprised of these two standard print guides, with additional information added by users:

  • Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors, The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, Third Edition (Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2006).
  • Alice Eichholz, editor, Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, Third Edition (Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2004).

In addition to these sources, the general history of many locations appears in Wikipedia Digitized images of original records are being brought online at an astonishing rate. Many of the records that you need, however, will be found in archives—either public government archives or private archives—or in libraries—including public libraries, historical society libraries, and university libraries. The types of records found in archives and libraries differ slightly.

In general, archives hold original records and libraries hold derivative records, like published indexes and books of record transcriptions or abstracts. An exception to this rule lies in the special collections of various libraries. Historical societies and university libraries in particular often have large special collections, which will include manuscript records unavailable elsewhere, like church records or collections of private papers.

When visiting any repository of records you will need to remember several key points:

  • Many repositories now have their catalogs available online. Before visiting any repository, go through their website to find the specific records you will need to access, and make a detailed research plan. Unless you have an unlimited amount of time for research, you will benefit greatly from such a detailed plan, in both time saved and information located. You may also want to call ahead, to be sure that the records you need will be available. Some records are held off-site.
  • Most repositories require the use of pencils rather than pens. Be sure to keep a few in your research kit.
  • Some archives and libraries allow the use of a digital camera (usually without the flash) to photograph original records. Keep one in your research kit. However, others do not allow the use of cameras. Find out the policy of each repository you visit. While you are at it, also look into the availability and cost of photocopiers or scanners to reproduce the records you find.
  • Employees of repositories are generally very helpful in describing their collections and assisting you in locating records of interest. However, they seldom care about the history of your family. So do not give them all of the details about your ancestors; instead, keep your questions pointed and direct. Explain only what information you are looking for, and where you have already checked. They should be able to guide you to the correct record group.
  • Each archive and library will have its own individual policies, from its hours of operation to access to records. If a website is available for the repository in question, read through the information provided thoroughly. If you have any questions regarding certain policies, the website will also usually have a phone number. Do not be afraid to call ahead and ask!

Some government records will not be located at the state archives; these may only be available directly from the courthouse in which they were originally created. Part of your research into your ancestral home will be to learn the structure of the court system, from state courts down to county courts, and the records created by each. If you discover that you will have to visit a courthouse directly, call ahead to explain what you are looking for, and what their policies for research are. Unlike archives and libraries, whose main function is to serve researchers, courthouses are created to administer the same functions today as they did a century ago. Therefore, it is even more important in these situations that you be fully prepared before you arrive. Court clerks are simply too busy in most areas conducting the current business of the court to help you research your ancestors.


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.