The upcoming Family Tree University course Finding African-American Ancestors in Newspapers will help you use what instructor Tim Pinnick calls a neglected resource to trace your black ancestors.
Pinnick, author of the book Finding and Using African American Newspapers (read chapter 1, Making the Case for Newspaper Research, online as a PDF), emphasizes the importance of using both mainstream white newspapers and those written for a primarily African-American audience. Heres why:
Mainstream newspapers carried a wide range of stories covering the African-American. A considerable number of white newspapers in both the North and South carried columns or special sections of news specifically for black readership. Stories ranged from items about local residents to those on a state or national scale. The Joliet Evening Herald News in April of 1926, for example, ran an article on the awarding of a charter to the first black Boy Scout troop in the city.
Obituaries or stories reporting the deaths of black community members can be found with regularity. Researchers report great success in finding items such as these on their ancestors. In most cases these ancestors have not lived a life of great acclaim, but have merely established themselves as amicable neighbors.
In general, it’s not unusual to find obituaries in mainstream newspapers to be more extensive than those in African-American newspapers. I would guess that this is particularly true in cases when the white paper is published in town, while the black newspaper is national in scope and published elsewhere.
A case in point would be the death of African-American Nancy Greenly of Kankakee, Ill., in 1920. Her death notice in the Chicago Defender on January 17 consisted of one paragraph on page 7, compared to front-page coverage of the event in eight rich paragraphs in the Kankakee Daily Republican.
Pinnick recommends the N. W. Ayers & Sons American Newspaper Annual, digitized on the Library of Congress website, to help you determine what newspapers were published in your ancestors area, and even the papers political leanings. Pinnick points out that before the Civil War until around the 1930s, elements of the Republican Party championed the rights of African-Americans. Newspapers supporting that party may have been more likely to cover African-Americans in the community.
Finding African-American Ancestors in Newspapers: Research Strategies for Success is a four-week course (one lesson per week) starting Aug. 16.