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


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Introduction[edit | edit source]

African American research in the United States can be difficult. Essentially, any research project needs to start with the known and then work backwards into the unknown. This is accomplished by searching for home sources and interviewing older relatives.


Research Steps[edit | edit source]

Step 1: Compile Personal and Family Knowledge[edit | edit source]

Gather all possible records, knowledge, and information from home sources and living relatives. The knowledge from relatives and home sources may hold the key to finding vital records and ancestors.[1]

Compile info from personal and family knowledge/interview relatives/find previous research.

Interview relatives, IGI, ancestral file, home sources

Oral Interviews[edit | edit source]

Oral interviews are extremely important because information from elderly relatives, family friends, or long-time neighbors can provide information previously unknown and lead to finding vital and other records. Information can be learned about physical descriptions, occupations, marriages, children, causes for separation, name changes, and much more.

The requirements for oral interviews include:

  1. Know the subject. Learn about them before the interview, such as how they are related to an ancestor.
  2. Set up appointment. Tell the interviewee that the interview will be recorded.
  3. Prepare questions beforehand.
  4. Record the interview in high quality. Write down notes during interview if needed.
  5. Transcribe the interview immediately afterwards and keep notes together.
  6. Thank the interviewee and be willing to share interview or research with them afterwards.

Important topics to cover in interview:

  • Establish the physical descriptions and racial origins of ancestors
  • Determine citizenship status during slavery period (slave or free)
    • If slave, determine whether a house or field slave
  • Determine how marriages were consummated - by church, civil ceremony, or slave custom
  • Identify parentage of all children born during slavery to a particular female family member or fathered by a particular male family member
  • Identify all slave owners and the sale or death of slave family members
  • If the subject was affiliated with a church, determine its name, denomination, location, whether it had a school or cemetery, and the name of pastors and benevolent societies
  • Identify employers, their relationship to former slave owners, type of job, and length of employment
  • Determine whether the subject was ever a property owner
  • Identify any involvement with the law - who, when, where, why, outcome
  • Identify schools attended - when, where, duration, if graduated
  • Establish linkage with persons of other races
    • Was it acknowledged? By whom?
    • Was it common knowledge or not acknowledged?
  • Try to identify information about names
    • For whom was the ancestor named, ways it is spelled, when or if it changed, nicknames, acquired religious names, and if a slave, how the surname was acquired[2]

Step 2: Research Recent United States Sources[edit | edit source]

After gathering all known knowledge from family and home sources, then search for records in the United States.Start with recent records, do not try to search slave record first. Race in records is not always reliable. First names, age, relationship, and location are very important.[3]

Step 3: Research Older United States Sources[edit | edit source]

Slavery and Reconstruction[edit | edit source]

Find out when ancestors took their surname. About 85% of former slaves DID NOT take the surname of their former master. Some even changed surnames a second time.

It is important to differentiate between free black and slaves because each were listed in different records and so a different approach is needed. There were many free blacks in the South prior to 1860. Check the 1860 census. If they are listed, they were free, if not they were slaves.

Before the Civil War, slaves were property, so look among records of the slave owner for land records, taxes, probate, divorce decrees, and wedding presents.

If the will of an owner does not mention the slaves by name, check the disbursement documents. If the owner died young, slaves may have been hired out to pay for maintenance of his children, and a yearly report filed.[4]

Finding Slave Owners[edit | edit source]

Find out when an owner got the slaves.

It is very difficult to break into the slavery period; most people won’t find the connection[5]

Many try to research the slavery period prematurely – need to do a lot of background research to research the slavery period (and trace the right family)

Slave Genealogy by David Streets is helpful if you know the former slave owner and your ancestor did not live on a large plantation.

Not everyone had their owner’s surname passed down to them or known through oral history.

Method of research different when slave owner is known vs. when he or she is unknown.

    • When slave owner known: his name and family is the subject of research
    • When last slave owner unknown: the former slave is the subject of research

Many records list former slave owners.

Because slaves were not considered human beings and citizens of the U.S., some unusual things happened with the surnames of slaves and former slaves.

First – determine if the ancestors were slave or free.

  • Emancipation Proclamation implemented January 1863
    • Before then – Blacks were free in the North and South
  • To determine: research 1860 census of free inhabitants
    • If they are not listed there, and if their residence in 1870 was in a state that permitted slaves in 1860, the likelihood is that they were slaves prior to the Emancipation Proclamation[6]

Record Types[edit | edit source]

Important Records[edit | edit source]

  • Oral history
  • Family records
  • Cemetery & funeral home research
  • Vital statistic records
  • U.S. census records - 1920, 1910, 1900, 1890, 1880, 1870, & 1860
  • State, county and city records
  • Court records – present to 1865
    • Probate, land, civil, criminal
  • Military service and pension records
    • Post 1865 military service (WWII, WWI, Philippine Insurrection, Spanish American War, Indian Wars)
    • Civil War service
  • State archive records 1865 to 1885
    • State census
    • Voters registrations
    • Tax lists
  • Documentation of your research from present to 1865 including collateral ancestors
  • Residence – 1870 & before (state, county, & city or township)
  • Other records
    • Family, vital records, county histories, court records, narratives, bank records, Freedmen’s Bureau, military, neighborhood
  • Family
  • Vital records
  • County histories
  • Court records
  • Narratives
  • Bank records
  • Freedmen's Bureau
  • Military
  • Neighborhood

Court Records[edit | edit source]

Post-1864 court records based on "Jim Crow" laws may contain important ancestral information.[7]

Land Records[edit | edit source]

Before the Civil War, slaves were property, so look among records of the slave owner for land records, taxes, probate, divorce decrees, and wedding presents.

Taxes[edit | edit source]

Before the Civil War, slaves were property, so look among records of the slave owner for land records, taxes, probate, divorce decrees, and wedding presents.

Probate[edit | edit source]

Before the Civil War, slaves were property, so look among records of the slave owner for land records, taxes, probate, divorce decrees, and wedding presents.

Divorce Decrees[edit | edit source]

Before the Civil War, slaves were property, so look among records of the slave owner for land records, taxes, probate, divorce decrees, and wedding presents.

Native Americans[edit | edit source]

Records of African Americans can be found among Native American records because some Native Americans held slaves who became part of the tribe and were called freedmen.[8]


References[edit | edit source]

  1. Taylor, Marie. "Tips for finding black roots." Church News, 19 February 2005.
  2. Walker, James D. BLACK GENEALOGY: How to Begin. Word document, private files of the FamilySearch Content Strategy Team, 2018.
  3. Taylor, Marie. "Tips for finding black roots." Church News, 19 February 2005.
  4. Taylor, Marie. "Tips for finding black roots." Church News, 19 February 2005.
  5. Taylor, Marie. "Tips for finding black roots". Church News, 19 February 2005.
  6. Burroughs, Tony. "Methods & Sources of Finding Slave Owners". 1993 NGS Conference in the States S-161. 1993.
  7. Taylor, Marie. "Tips for finding black roots." Church News, 19 February 2005.
  8. Taylor, Marie. "Tips for finding black roots." Church News, 19 February 2005.