African American Genealogy: Searching for Yesterday

The author’s family, 1922, in Clarke County, Miss. 

This is a guest post by Ahmed Johnson, a reference librarian in  Researcher and Reference Services. 

When people ask me what sparked my interest in genealogy, I like to tell them about one of my favorite images.

This black and white photo (above), faded and distorted with age, was taken in Clarke County, Mississippi in 1922. Lying along the Alabama border about halfway down the state, it was rural then and is rural now. The picture shows several people in my family, the Peters. Sitting on the porch is my 101-year old grandmother then at the age of two, surrounded by my great-great grandparents, great-great-great grandfather, other relatives and a preacher. They were all posing in their Sunday best on the front porch of the family home.

This picture fascinated me as a six-year old kid, so I asked my grandmother several questions about it. I wanted to know why her house looked like a log cabin and who all the people were. It provided all the curiosity and inspiration needed to begin my genealogical journey.

Even today, the easiest way to learn information about your family is to ask questions. Interview the oldest living relative in your family. Record their answers on your cell phone. Ask them about anything you’re curious to know. You never know what’s important because records get scarcer the further you go back, especially those relating to African Americans. Names, dates, and locations of key events are a good way to get started.

Based on the information you already know and what you collected from your interviews, consider gathering additional information from where they lived. Look in the family home to find photos and other memorabilia. Maybe the family kept a bible where important dates and events were documented. Try searching the local county courthouse, state archives, church records, historical societies, and genealogical societies in the locality where they lived.

But beware! Researching African American genealogy is quite challenging. It is a lifelong journey – not a quick trip. When beginning, start with yourself and work backwards, using vital records, censuses and land ownership. We all have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, and the number keeps growing exponentially the further back you go.

This is the difficult part. In 1860, nearly 4 million enslaved individuals lived in the United States but they didn’t appear on federal census records. Therefore, you have to search for other records to help you locate family names and push your family history back further. Let’s look at some of the resources you can use to research African American genealogy.

The Library offers an array of online records that you can search for things like marriage records, cemetery records, tax records, city directories and more. On our premises, the Library offers more extensive resources– including free access to a subscription-based genealogy site, along with nearly 70,000 self-published family histories and over 100,000 local histories.  You can search these books using our online catalog.

You can also visit your local library to find out what search tools are available there. You can review a selected list of African American family histories and related sources on our website.

If slavery was in your family’s past, records of slave owners are another source of information.  Plantation records provide valuable details about the lives of enslaved people, including genealogical information about their families and everyday activities on the plantation. Many of these records are microfilmed at the Library and other repositories across the country.  Other sources include ProQuest History Vault, which is a subscription database available at the Library and may be available at other libraries across the country.

Additional records relating to former slaves are located via the Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedmen’s Bank records, which cover the years 1865–1874. The Freedmen’s Bureau was created to assist newly emancipated people, and the Bank was one of the first banks used by African Americans. Its records offer a gateway to slavery because free African Americans had to list their last owner on the bank account application. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) houses the originals. Others are digitized and available on subscription databases at the Library and still others on freely accessible databases.

Like bank records, military records are quite valuable when conducting genealogical research. These records provide information about individuals who served in the armed forces or were eligible to serve. Over 186,000 African Americans served as part of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War. Some of the records are available via subscription databases at the Library. As with Freedmen’s Bank records, the physical records are available at the National Archives.

Newspapers provide a wealth of information about the people who lived in a specific community. Genealogists use newspapers to locate obituaries and other significant information about their ancestors. These include social events, land ownership and the birth of children. The Library has one of the most comprehensive collections of newspapers for the entire country. Some newspapers are digitized and searchable via Chronicling America. In addition, African American newspapers databases are available at the Library or other large libraries in your area.

Once you have completed your research, you can archive your compiled family history at the Library. Oral histories are archived at the Library through StoryCorps. This is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind and preserved at the American Folklife Center. Personal accounts of American war veterans are preserved in the Veterans History Project.

We hope that’s enough to get you started. As always, you can ask a reference librarian for help through our Ask a Librarian service. Good luck!

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