5 Tips for Beginning Your African-American Genealogy Research

For millions of Americans, genealogy research has become a popular pastime. Based on circumstances surrounding the lineage you're tracing, some historical aspects can hinder or help your investigation. Slavery and Paper Genocide, which shattered family relationships and made record keeping nearly impossible, is one potential stumbling block to researching African-American ancestors. Because African-American slaves were considered property, a bill of sale containing merely the age and gender of the person sold was frequently the sole record for someone residing in a slave-holding state prior to the Civil War.

The problems of going back in time before the Civil War are numerous, but if you know where to search, you may find a wealth of resources. The National Archives of the United States is an amazing resource. After the Civil War, federal agencies created documents that include a plethora of personal information about the approximately four million African-Americans who were released by the Emancipation Proclamation.

However, not all African-American people were slaves during chattel slavery time. Many Africans lived amongst Indigenous people and even some Indigenous people were being counted as African American or Black so you have to use not only genealogy but different sources to confirm and map out your family history.

1. African American genealogy is not impossible.

Due to the scarcity of historical records mentioning slaves, tracing relatives who were enslaved is challenging. Many African American genealogists have been able to identify their enslaved ancestors through perseverance.

2. Trace your family back to the Civil War using typical sources and methods.

Talking to relatives and searching censuses, vital records, and newspapers are just a few examples. Some records, such as a "colored" marriage registry, might be segregated.

3. Study your family’s migrations.

Millions of African Americans in the rural South relocated to cities in the north and west over the twentieth century. Ask relatives about your family's moves and utilize censuses and city directories to track them down if yours followed this pattern.

4. Check the 1860 and 1850 censuses.

At the time of the Civil War, about 90% of African Americans were enslaved and were not counted in censuses. Censuses and other records frequently show free blacks.

5. Identify slaveholding families.

People who were enslaved did not have legal surnames. Slaves who were freed occasionally (but not always) adopted the surname of their former master. If this was your family's situation, the name could guide you to where they were during slavery. To track down your enslaved ancestors, you may need to consult slaveholding family papers such as wills and estate inventories.

6. Go offline.

Before 1865, you'll almost certainly need to conduct research in non-online records to learn about your African American ancestry.

Conclusion

If you can't find your ancestors right away, don't worry! Many documents are being uploaded into ancestry websites databases each day so if you can't find it today there is always a possibly for tomorrow. 

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