Researching African American Genealogy
|African American Genealogy Wiki Topics|
It is important to note that no matter how much time and money you spend on your research, unless you are organized, you will frustrate yourself and your opportunity for finding the truth about your family. Leave those tiny slips of paper alone and get software to help you keep track of which branches actually have leaves and which ones do not. There are a good number of quality Family Tree software companies who will allow you to download their software for free. Take advantage of the opportunity and get started today!
There are seven easy steps to begin your research:
- 1 Step One: Start With Yourself
- 2 Step Two: Gather Family Information
- 3 Step Three: Contact Your Relatives
- 4 Step Four: Write for Copies of Records
- 5 Step Five: Follow Up On Death Record Clues
- 6 Step Six: Search the Census
- 7 Step Seven: Search at the State and County Level
- 8 What You Will Find
- 9 External Links
- 10 Resources
Step One: Start With Yourself
Identify what you already know. Start with yourself and work backward in time by filling in as much information as you can, by memory, on a Pedigree Chart. You will need to know the full name (including maiden names for women) and dates and locations for birth, death, and marriage.
Step Two: Gather Family Information
Gather your records (Birth, Marriage, Deeds, etc.).
- Interview immediate family members; compare your memories with those of your siblings, parents, cousins, grandparents, etc.
- Ask when and where things happened to get an understanding of "place" and "time"- remember, location is key in genealogical research.
- Record Record the information you get from these interviews.
- Fill Fill in a Family Group Sheet to organize your ancestors according to marriages.
Step Three: Contact Your Relatives
For relatives who live in other states, start with a phone call and follow up with a letter. For relatives nearby, make plans to visit at their convenience. Ask for permission to record the conversation or to use videotape prior to interview.
Step Four: Write for Copies of Records
- Birth, Death, Marriage, Divorce
- Courthouse Information
- Land/Probate Deeds, Conveyances, Affidavit of Heirship, Guardianship
- Tax Records (includes slave information)
- Voter Registration
- Social Security Administration
Step Five: Follow Up On Death Record Clues
- Legal name of descendant
- Marital status
- Parent(s) Names(s)
- Date and place of birth and death
- Who verified death
- Funeral Home that handled remains
- Verification of social security number
Step Six: Search the Census
Federal Census Records are taken every ten years and are available from 1790 through 1940. Some local and state census records are also available depending upon the venue.
Census records contain: name, age, race, occupation, house number, occupants, literacy, military experience, home/farm ownership, value of property, neighbors and much more.
Begin searching with the name of a person you know who would have been included in the 1940 census.
If you have trouble finding the person, look for siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. Most families lived only a few doors from each other.
Step Seven: Search at the State and County Level
In many cases, state and local records are the best sources for finding information. For example, many jurisdictions completed census records annually in addition to the 10-year Federal Census
Records also include voter registration cards, tax information (this is important for slavery research), land grants, deeds, wills and probate, some vital records, cemetery listings and transcriptions, criminal and civil proceedings, etc.
Most states have an Archives Office that each county routinely sends information to. This is done to free space at the local level as well as to preserve the history of each locale.
What You Will Find
What you will find in interviewing members of the family is that African Americans often use nicknames instead of proper birth names. Many of us don't know the "real" names of our family members. This tradition is a direct result of slavery. Families in bondage gave each child a "secret" name so that if the family were ever separated and later rejoined, this "secret" name would be the unique identifier for reuniting.
An additional benefit of having a "secret" name was to deter an unsuspecting blood brother and sister from procreation or likewise, father and daughter. Unfortunately, this unique survival technique hundreds of years later creates yet another obstacle for the researcher who uses official records to trace lineage.
As you prepare for the interview, be mindful that there are some very deep, embarrassing, painful family secrets that relatives might not be willing to share right away, so tread lightly. For you, stirring up pain, waking the dead, shaking the leaves and branches of your tree might not be your intention but for the person who hasn't let go and or chooses to forget...it isn't just that simple. Establishing a mutually trusting, caring relationship must come first and hopefully one day you'll learn the real reason of how and why Uncle Joe was your uncle and your grandfather.
- Thomas, Kenneth H., Jr. "A note on the Pitfalls of Black Genealogy: The Origins of Black Surnames." Georgia Archives 6 (Spring 1978:23-30.