6 Keys to Success for African-American Genealogy

6 Keys to Success for African-American Genealogy

Slavery isn't a dead end for African-Americans researching their family trees. Learn how to get past that brick wall with these six keys to African-American genealogy success.

African-American genealogy tips for tracing slave ancestors
Library of Congress

National African-American History Month began in 1926 when Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History founded Negro History Week. The observation was expanded to a month in February 1976 with a declaration by President Gerald Ford.

So let’s talk genealogy. Those researching African-American ancestors often face a brick wall at slavery. These keys from Family Tree Magazine contributing editor Sunny Jane Morton are important to give yourself yourself the best possible chance to find your family:

1. African-American genealogy is not impossible.

Tracing relatives in slavery is difficult due to the scarcity of historical records naming slaves. But with persistence, many African-American genealogists have been able to identify their enslaved ancestors.

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

These include talking to relatives and searching censuses, vital records and newspapers. You may find that some records are segregated, such as a “colored” marriage register.

3. Study your family’s migrations.

During the 20th century, millions of African-Americans in the rural South moved to cities in the north and west. If your family followed this pattern, ask relatives about your family’s moves and use censuses and city directories to track them.

4. Check the 1860 and 1850 censuses.

About 90 percent of African-Americans were enslaved at the time of the Civil War, and weren’t named in censuses. Free blacks often do appear in censuses and other records.

5. Identify slaveholding families.

Enslaved people didn’t have legal surnames. Freed slaves sometimes (but not always) took the surname of a former slaveholder. If this was the case for your family, the name may lead you to their location during slavery. You may need to use records of the slaveholding families, such as wills and estate inventories, to trace your enslaved ancestors’ whereabouts.

6. Go offline.

To learn about African-American ancestors before 1865, you’ll probably need to research in records that aren’t online.

African-American genealogy tips for tracing slave ancestors
Library of Congress

Want more African-American genealogy tips? Download our free e-book Trace Your African-American Ancestry, with six guides from Family Tree Magazine to help you discover your African-American family history.


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  1. I have a somewhat different question about African-American ancestry.

    I am white. My ancestors were slaveholders in Tennessee in the late 1700s and early 1800s. I would be interested in trying to trace the descendants of those African-Americans who involuntarily contributed to my family history and wealth.

    Besides the early census information, vague as it is, I also possess very limited information concerning only first names, ages, and places of residence of some of these people who were considered as property and sold or transferred by testament. I sometimes have the last name of the new &quot;owners&quot;. Other information may exist in registries or official records that I am unaware of.

    Since my relatives last “owned” human beings around 1820, we are still rather far removed from the likely moment these people regained at least a theoretical liberty, and when they selected or were imposed with last names (which in some cases may have been the family names of their &quot;masters&quot;).

    I am interested in identifying these African-Americans because we have a shared history. As disgraceful as it is, it is part of my family history, and the debt my family owes these people should not be forgotten or minimized. We may possibly even share blood. (In my case it is probable we do not share a family name.)

    Are there any organisations or resources that could help in this research, that moves chronologically downhill, rather than backwards in time as pursued most often by African-Americans?

    Perhaps this general subject is even worthy of an article on the site?