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My Job at the Library: Researching African-American Genealogy

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Ahmed Johnson. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Ahmed Johnson is a local history and genealogy reference librarian in the Library’s Main Reading Room and a specialist in African-American history. A bibliography he created, “African-American Family Histories and Related Works in the Library of Congress,” guides Library researchers seeking to understand their families’ stories to printed and digital sources at the Library.

Here Johnson answers questions about his career of nearly 30 years at the Library, how he developed a passion for African-American genealogy and his search for his own family’s roots.

Tell us a little about your background.
I am one of the few native Washingtonians at the Library of Congress – my family goes back four generations in D.C. In 1989, when I was as a rising senior at Archbishop Carroll High School, I started as a deck attendant in the Library’s Collections Management Division. While attending Hampton University in Virginia, I continued to work at the Library, eventually securing a position as reference assistant in the Manuscript Division. After I graduated, I was selected to participate in the Professional Development Associate Program, a 24-month training that led to my being hired as a reference librarian in the Local History and Genealogy Section.

How did you become interested in African-American genealogy?
I was always curious as a kid and loved history. Every chance I got, I would ask my grandmother – she is now 98 – about how she grew up and about my relatives. I wanted to know about their occupations, their education, their everyday life. My grandmother showed me a photograph from 1922 of her as a 2-year-old sitting on the porch of the family home in Clarke County, Mississippi. The picture included my great-great-great grandfather, who lived to be 106, my great-great grandparents, three cousins and a traveling preacher. I was fascinated by the black-and-white portrait – it looked ancient, it was so dark and blurred. The house looked like a log cabin, and everyone’s clothing was tattered. I quickly realized the sacrifice made by my ancestors and how this sacrifice benefited me – and this sparked even more questions. But I had no idea this curiosity would lead to a career helping others trace their family histories.

What are the special challenges of doing African-American genealogy?
For any group, the further back you go, the fewer records that exist. But the slavery system increased the difficulty. Some individuals were free before the Civil War, but most black Americans are descended from slaves. Considered property, slaves left no real paper trail. They did not record their marriages at the local county courthouse. Also, slavery split families apart, and few slaves could read or write, so the likelihood of family histories being left behind is low. Census records did not include the names of slaves, only the age and the gender of each slave belonging to a specific owner.

By the time slavery ended, for generations of people, much of their original identity and history was lost. And after the Civil War, many families migrated. Some took on the names of former masters, but others simply made up names. Former slaves were poor, and records are always scarce for the poor. Stories about blacks didn’t make the mainstream newspapers until decades later. Some unique records do exist that are helpful in tracing African-American roots, but usually the history is documented by finding the last slave owner.

Which collections have you used to track your own genealogy?
Genealogy is about more than names, dates and locations. It’s about how people lived and why they did the things they did. In genealogy, we call it “putting meat on the bones.” I began my research by interviewing my older relatives. This information led to other resources and collections.

The Library of Congress has local histories from throughout the country in its collections, for example. I searched for books relating to the counties where my relatives had lived. These books provided records pertaining to county history, marriages, taxes, deaths and other details. The Library also has family histories compiled by people who researched their own families. I searched our catalog for these books as well, but unfortunately none related to my line of the family.

The Library subscribes to hundreds of subscription databases, which are free to the staff and public – although some are accessible only on site. I have searched several and located fascinating records. Ancestry Library Edition, which is our subscription to, has over a billion names and allows you to search for your ancestors’ names. I’ve located U.S. census records, military records and marriage records for my family in Ancestry.

Chronicling America” is a newspaper database that allows keyword searching. My research in this database has revealed obituaries and other information. I continue to search the “Records of the Ante Bellum Southern Plantations,” a microfilmed collection housed in the Manuscript Reading Room. These are records of plantation owners containing information about everyday life on the plantations. They document when people were bought and sold, and provide details about occupations, clothing and food allowances and list slaves by their first names.

Has anything you’ve learned about your own family surprised you?
Using “Chronicling America,” I located a letter to the editor, “Remember the Fireman,” written by my great-great grandfather complaining about his pay and that of his colleagues. Imagine my surprise! I had no idea my ancestor was a firefighter. The letter was published in The Washington Herald on Dec. 10, 1913. But history tells me that black firemen didn’t exist during this time in D.C. I figured out that my ancestor was one of the guys who lit the gas lamps around the city. In 1913, they were called firemen.

Comments (17)

  1. I loved the story at the end about discovering the letter to the editor by your ancestor. For the genealogist, that’s the kind of find that is like striking gold when you find it, because it happens so rarely. A great blog post; I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience. Where can I find information/documentation regarding my British and US Virgin Islands ancestors.

  3. Fantastic story. Thank-you for sharing it.

  4. Wow—wonderfully insightful, informative article—especially the “Remember the Fireman” revelation. Thanks for sharing your profession and your experience(s).

  5. I will be sharing your post with writers/poets who benefit from these resources to flush out their poems, scripts, essays; and with my genealogy addicts. We need you! Asante.

  6. All my years of life at Eastern Market and hours of pouring through the Natl Archives and Library of Congress, I was unsuccessful in my Ancestoral quest. Fast forward and return to Gary I found family in N.W. D C., Upper Marlboro and Alexandria! Ancestors hail from Fredericksburg, VA and W Va!

    Upon returning to D.C., I’m gonna look for the books on local families.

    Bless you for answering your Calling to guide us on this Journey of discovering our Roots! You make Alex Haley proud!

  7. Thank you so much for answering your calling. Trully, an extraordinary ordinary calling, for an extraordinary person. Mr. Johnson, How can I find out more about my genealogy?

  8. Hello:
    For those seeking direct reference or research help, the best means is through our “Ask a Librarian” web service at There you can get specific research assistance and guidance from the one of our reference librarians. Thanks for writing and best wishes.

  9. I worked as a deck attendent from 2000-2007, and my favorite place was the Local History and Genealogy room. Like you I am a 3rd generation Washingtonian. And have been studying my family history for over 10 years. And have more information on my grandmother’s side of the family than grandfather’s. Thanks for the article.

  10. I appreciate your story, and how you are helping others tell theirs. Thank you!

  11. Find out information about my grandparents.

  12. hi, touchy subject, ….I’m doing the family tree of my husbands cousin and have come across an ancestor of her being a slave owner back in the 1700s and passing his named slaves to different children in his will. I was wondering if there was a way to include these people in a searchable database. They have no “last name” but many of them were mentioned as if they let them live as a family. I haven’t come across a site to list these people from the will that were mentioned but it is prior to 1860 maybe a generation or two. Unfortunately, I believe they can be traced through deeds of the slave owners. This was the Allen Family in Brunswick, NC and mentions his “plantation” in his will.

  13. Hello: You may want to pose your question to our “Ask a Librarian” web service at // Best wishes.

  14. Ahmed was extremely patient and helpful when I visited the LOC for the first time. He has a wealth of knowledge and shared with me the importance of telling our family stories and preserving them at the LOC.

  15. Reading this story took me back to my absolute wonderful and awe inspiring first day at the LoC and a genealogical research orientation with Ahmed. A more passionate, informed and helpful librarian could not be found. Time with him flew swiftly as he shared with us the many treasures of the LoC. Thank you, again, Ahmed.

  16. I came across 2 very brief news accounts of the 1918 Cabiness family murders while researching the origins of our county’s memorial to the Confederate soldiers that was removed from our courthouse just last week. As a result, I found a request for more information via a posting on “Christine’s African American Genealogy Website” which does not appear to be active. The posting was from Billy Joe Cabiness Jr. but again, a deadend since his email is also inactive. So that PERHAPS someone can add to that website or contact Mr. Cabiness or his family, here is a well researched academic article from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly about the tragedy in 1918 in Walker County, Texas. At least the reference is here and findable, for you or your readers. Context around the building of these memorials is very important for our understanding:

  17. What a wonderful genealogy story! I loved reading it! It is so inspiring to hear that your curiosity led to such a fascinating discovery, I literally smiled when I read it. Thank you for sharing!

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