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Q. Do all African-Americans have slave ancestry?
A. At first glance, this seems like an easy question to answer, but it’s really as complex as the concept of slavery. The slave trade in North America began when the first Africans came to Jamestown in 1619. Most were in some form of servitude, whether as indentured servants or slaves. Indentured servants were debt bondage workers under contract for three to seven years. Slaves were under the control of another person for life.
The importation of slaves was banned in 1808, but slavery continued in the United States until emancipation in 1865. Most slaves were taken to North America from West and Central Africa, an estimated 450,000 before 1808. (Another 2 million Africans died in the Middle Passage, the voyage from Africa to North America.) To learn more about the Atlantic slave trade, visit the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.
According to the US Census Bureau, an African-American is a person with origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as “Black, African Am. or Negro,” or provide written entries such as African-American, Afro-American, Kenyan, Nigerian or Haitian.
For example, President Barack Obama’s mother is of European ancestry and his father is of Kenyan ancestry. Obama is routinely identified as the first African-American president, and his father’s ancestors were not slaves. African-
Americans whose parents immigrated to the United States from Africa after the time of slavery likely do not have any slave ancestry.
If your ancestor was born in the United States during the time of slavery, you’re more than likely a descendant of slaves. Slaves were able to obtain freedom through manumission or purchase. Freed slaves often carried their manumission papers with them when they traveled—some states even required registration with the county courthouse. To determine if your family was free or slave, review the census records and courthouse records for your home state.
For more resources on researching African-Americans, check out the article “Tracing Slave Ancestors” in the July 2009 Family Tree Magazine and see our online African-American Research Toolkit.
From the December 2009 Family Tree Magazine