African-Americans who are researching family history from 1870 until now can use the same methods and resources as other American families. However, due to American's tragic history of slavery, finding African-American family history prior to 1870 is challenging.
Record Oral History
To research your family history, begin your family tree with yourself and go back as far as your knowledge allows. If you're like most people, you've filled in your parents, grandparents, and some great-grandparents. Before you go online to do a People Search to find your missing African-American family members, talk to older relatives.
While you're recording oral history, ask elderly family members for stories about your family's past as well as the names of ancestors. Find out as much as you can about birthdates, places of birth, death dates, marriages, and the reason relatives moved. These family members may have family records and photos that you could ask to copy for your research.
Research from 1870 Until the Present
Researching family history from 1870 until the present involves sifting through certificates of birth, death, and marriage. Land records and the United States Census records also are primary sources for family research. The year 1870 is significant for African-American family research because it marks the first time people who had been enslaved were named in the census.
Find Your African-American Family Members Prior to 1870
Researching African-American family history before 1870 is easier if your family members were not slaves because your ancestors were recorded in the 1860 census. For most African-American families, the following resources are helpful for researching this challenging era.
- The Freedman's Bureau was established the year slavery was abolished to help African-Americans adjust to their lives as free people. You can use the names of your relatives from the 1870 census to search the records of the Freedman's Bureau, which include marriage records, bank records, and labor contracts.
- While the U.S. Federal Census 1860 Slave Schedule does not list the name of slaves, these records are useful if you have a name you're trying to confirm as a relative's slave owner.
- Voter registration records from 1867 in the southern states are helpful because those states were required to register adult African-American males as part of their re-entry into the Union.
Some military records of United States Colored Troops who served during the Civil War are part of the National Archives.
The wills and probate records of slave owners sometimes include the names of enslaved persons.
Plantation records also can shed additional light into your family's history.
Manumission papers, also known as freedom papers or certificates of freedom, were legal documents that proved the status of free African-Americans.
Additional Resources:Family Tree
- Family Tree Magazine has a resource list of African-American genealogy.
- The State Library of North Carolina's article on how to find slave records is useful for other states.
Finding your African-American family members may be challenging, but you can do it. It's likely you'll find this work increasingly rewarding as you discover the riches of your family's history. Many African-Americans who initially believed the barriers between them and their family's past were too great to overcome have been pleasantly surprised. Some have traced their African-American roots back to the 18th century. A few have found the African ancestor who first came to America. Your family's story is waiting to be found.