6 African American Genealogy Research Tips

By Sunny Jane Morton

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 are a way 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.

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.

Six African American research tips.