Researching Your African American Roots
P eople of African American descent often face challenges when they try to trace their ancestors. However, African Americans can use the same basic steps that other cultural groups use to get started before they conduct more specialized searches. Then they can access special records to trace ancestors who might have been slaves.
Genealogy is a popular North American hobby. It is history at its most personal — the history of one person at a time which, as you compile it and research it, becomes the history of a family, its ancestors and descendants, and the events and conditions which shaped and forged that family over time and distance.
How do you get started? Begin with yourself and record your own name, birth date, place of birth and the full names of your parents. Then, record any marital information about you and your spouse. Next, record all similar information about your children and/or grandchildren. Then, record the same type of information about your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. Don’t forget to record dates and places of death and/or burial for those who are deceased.
Where do you find this information?
First look in your own home. Search your own family and personal records. These can include birth/baptismal certificates, marriage and/or death certificates, family Bible/religious records, school records, photographs, letters, diaries, journals, insurance policies, wills, driver’s licenses, pension records, passports, etc.
Talk to your elder family members because when they are gone, their memories and knowledge of family traditions, stories and information are also gone. Talk to or correspond with relatives, whether they are distant or nearby. Talk to your relatives’ old neighbors, especially if they lived in one area or neighborhood for a long period of time.
Make use of local and state records. These include vital records such as births, marriages, deaths, wills and probates, church records, school records, land and property records, tax records, cemetery records, town and city directories, etc. Major national record sources include the U.S. census records, military records, immigration and naturalization records, social security records, ship passenger lists, etc.
Besides public record agencies, archives and libraries, there are many sources of genealogical information. The largest private genealogical archive in the world is the Latter Day Saints Church (Mormon) Family History Library (FHL) located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Through this library and its 3,200 branches worldwide, you may access millions of genealogical records. These include the Family History Library Catalog and several computerized genealogical data bases including the International Genealogical Index (IGI), the Ancestral File, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), the Military Index (Americans killed in the Korean and Vietnam Wars) and the Pedigree Resource File index. The FHL is also accessible via the Internet. The Web address is <www.familysearch.org>.
Another useful Internet site is Cyndi’s List at <www.cyndislist.com>. This site provides links to more than 56,000 genealogical and related Web sites. It is very well organized and easy to use.
Tracing 19th century slave ancestry
The easiest part of your genealogical search will be uncovering records about relatives who lived in the United States during the 20th century, since public records from that period concerning births, deaths, property and immigration are fairly uniform. As you move back into the 19th century and earlier, this will change. American Indians may be recorded on tribal censuses and member rosters, Bureau of Indian Affairs lists, tribal and reservation records.
The slave ancestry of African Americans is a vexatious but not always insurmountable challenge for those who are attempting to trace their genealogy. Prior to 1870, Blacks were not uniformly included in the national census. For example, slave schedules for the 1850 and 1860 U.S. censuses rarely record slaves by name and list only gender, age and certain physical characteristics. One of the primary ways of tracing slave ancestors is through the records of their owners. These include plantation and estate records that have been preserved in various national, state, university and
Wills, probates, property and tax records are also valuable sources of information. Do not overlook manumission lists, which are city or county registration lists of slaves who moved. These lists, which were used to identify freed slaves, are more prevalent in the New England and formerly Confederate states. Also check public records of slave sales and purchases, court records such as estate and inheritance disputes, and lawsuits.
Following the Civil War, another important source of information is the Freedman’s Bureau. This was a federal agency established to help assist the newly freed slaves. These records are on microfilm and are available through the National Archives. Homestead records should also be checked and these are available through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the National Archives.
— Myra Bertilson is a professional genealogist who works at Rio Salado College in Tempe, Ariz.
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