Before the 20th century, African-Americans were minimally represented in historical records that European-ancestored researchers are accustomed to using, such as censuses, vital records, land records and immigration records. Documents relating to slavery can be difficult to find, and many contain sparse data—for example, descriptions of an owner’s slaves, but not their names. The most important of sources, spoken family lore, was often lost when slavery separated families.
For example, Freedman’s Bank Records, with 480,000 entries from 1864 to 1875, were published on CD and now are part of FamilySearch’s free Record Search Pilot Site, HeritageQuest Online and Ancestry.com . Rutgers University professor Gwendolyn Midlo Hall documented 100,000 Louisiana slaves of the 18th and 19th centuries; her work is online at <www.ibiblio.org/laslave>. AfriGeneas, which provides data, links, message boards and chats, has been an African-American genealogy hub since the 1990s.
The past few years have seen a surge of launches: Afriquest is a free repository for documents, images and family stories. Lowcountry Africana focuses on resources related to slaves from the Gullah and Geechee cultures of the coastal Southeast. The Digital Library on American Slavery provides details on more than 150,000 names from Southern court records. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database contains information that’s been gathered since the 1960s on more than 35,000 slave-trade voyages. And ProQuest’s new African AmericanHeritage site promises a mix of records, tools and research guidance.
Genetic research and testing also has contributed to some genealogists’ understanding of their African origins. This new research path has gained steam thanks to DNA tests of famous folks (think Oprah Winfrey) and targeted services such as African Ancestry. Though results can be inconclusive (see the December 2009 Family Tree Magazine to learn why), they may deepen a sense of identity and direct further research.
Though recent online launches have created new research paths, most African-American genealogists will probably still need to consult these classic sources:
» US Colored Troops
Service records of almost 180,000 African-Americans who served in segregated Civil War units are on microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and Family History Library (FHL). They’re also digitized on subscription websites Ancestry.com and Footnote.com.
» Slave Narratives
In the 1930s, workers for the Federal Writers Project interviewed more than 2,300 former slaves. You can search or browse transcriptions of these interviews—and see photos of many of the subjects—free on the Library of Congress website.
» Freedmen’s Bureau Records
After the Civil War, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands help former slaves find work, legalize their marriages and more. Records are on NARA and FHL microfilm. Virginia marriages are searchable on FamilySearch.
» Southern Claims Commission Records