African American Lives
Analyzing the Evidence
The Science and the Investigators
Who am I? A Genealogy Guide
Sharing Stories
For Educators
About the Series

Who am I? A Genealogy Guide
Intro The Challenge Choosing Your Route Making the Journey

Genealogy may be America's fastest growing hobby, but as you've seen in AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES, for some Americans, the essential question -- "Where do I come from?" -- cannot easily be answered. The supporting documents many Americans of European descent take for granted -- from public documents such as census records to private writings such as family letters -- simply do not exist in many cases. The great majority of African Americans will come to a point in their genealogical research where they find that their histories have been lost -- or stolen. Discovering African American family history can be as daunting as it is rewarding -- but it isn't impossible.

Image of a card catalogue in an archive
Libraries, archives, and the internet can give you access to a wealth of resources...but where to begin?
Especially since the explosion of internet-based genealogy research, beginning genealogists have come to depend on easily searchable public records such as the Federal Census. Likewise, many who are researching African American ancestors have come to realize that 1870 -- the first year that emancipated former slaves were accounted for by name in the Census -- is the furthest back one can go using traditional documentation.

While it is well-understood that going further back in time will often require that a researcher find and investigate records connected not directly with his or her ancestors, but with their former slaveowner, it's less well-known that where African American ancestors are involved, even dealing with 20th- and late 19th-century records demands special attention to issues that those researching European ancestors may never encounter.

One of the enduring legacies of racism is that some of your older relatives may be reluctant to discuss painful experiences, experiences they may never have spoken of and may not think worth remembering or writing down. For the genealogist or family historian, this relcutance must be respected, but it can be a barrier to exploring your ancestors' experience of racism, of the Jim Crow Era, of periods of economic hardship in the early 20th century, and more. As you do your research you must remember to be reassuring -- watch for situations in which a relative may be uncomfortable, and remember to remind them that what you're doing is for research's sake, not to open old wounds.

Particularly during the Jim Crow era, segregation had a massive impact on how records were kept and organized. Primarily in the South, institutions were fully segregated, but so were some Federal institutions (the military is perhaps the largest example), so it's worth keeping in mind as you search for your ancestors that you may need to work from limited documentation, or be prepared to search for "colored" public records that may well have been segregated from the records of white Americans.

Many people get involved in genealogy because of an interest in history; finding out how ones' ancestors fit into world events is part of the excitement of investigating your family's past. But while learning about your ancestors will teach you a lot about the past, at every step, it's important that you study the periods you're researching to develop an understanding of the history of the time in which your ancestors lived. As leading African American genealogist Tony Burroughs has pointed out, one of the biggest issues facing amateur genealogists is that knowledge of African American history is simply not as widespread as it should be. Knowing that history will make it easier for you to find what you're looking for -- and putting your family history in context will make it even more rewarding.

A detail of an old document, reading FREE NEGROES
Keep in mind that you may not be looking for slave ancestors after all.
For example, as you've seen in AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES, some of the series' participants are surprised to find that some of their African American ancestors were not slaves at all. Though it's not commonly known, before the Civil War there were about 450,000 free Blacks living in America, more than half of those were living in the South. You can't necessarily assume that your 18th- and early-19th-century ancestors were in fact enslaved. It is possible that they were free. If they were free, and you have been searching through slave schedules instead of looking for manumission papers, birth and death certificates, don't be discouraged that you've been unable to find information. You may simply have been looking at the wrong records.

Reproduction of an old census document, reading NAMES OF SLAVE OWNERS
Depending on a variety of factors, slaveowners' names can be valuable research tools...or simply distractions
Likewise, many researchers beginning their studies of their enslaved ancestors focus on the names of slaveowners in the regions from which they believe their family may have lived. Finding out the name of the slave owner who your ancestors may have worked for is essential -- the best source for finding information about enslaved people is to find wills, estate records, or business documents kept by their owners -- but it can't be taken for granted that the slave owner you're looking for is the one who shares a surname with known members of your family. Freed people took names for a variety of reasons, and you'll do the best research if you look into all of the options.

And as you'll see in the "Analyzing the Evidence" and "Choosing your Route" sections of this website, the slave schedules of the 1850 and 1860 censuses do contain much valuable information linked to the slave owner's name, but making use of that information to find your ancestors requires some additional detective work.

It may not be easy to find what you're looking for, but the process can be incredibly exciting -- and it is essential. As genealogy increases in popularity among African Americans, and as knowledge of African American history expands, the task will become much less daunting for future researchers. Genealogists build on one anothers' work -- whether at conferences, on internet discussion boards, or by publishing family histories, shared information benefits all researchers. And keep in mind that by your efforts, you're helping to build a bridge to the past that will aid your own descendants as they try to make sense of their pasts.

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