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Uncovering Your Family's Story!
6 African-American Genealogy Research Tips to Get You Started

1. Talk To Your Kinfolk

     Put together a family tree based on the information you know and the information you can get from family members.  Family charts can be obtained from the Internet. Interview your relatives, mainly the older generation first. When visiting relatives, be sure to take a voice recorder (or video camera) with you, as well as a tablet and a pencil, and any other devices that will allow you to record the information. Get names, dates, places where your ancestors lived, any famous family stories, etc.   You may be able to go back several generations in your family tree just from talking with your parents, grandparents, aunts, great-aunts, great-uncles, cousins, and other relatives. Talk to as many elderly family members as you can. You may find that some members of your family do not like to discuss the past. However, and hopefully, there will be other family members who will be happy to know that someone is interested in the family’s roots.

     When talking with your elderly relatives, a good idea is to generate conversations about their young days rather than continually asking specific questions. On one occasion, I asked a relative about the siblings of my great-great-grandfather. She couldn't remember any names, but when I asked her about her young days and the old people she remembered when she was growing up, an "Uncle Jack" appeared in the conversation. I asked, "Who was Uncle Jack?" The response I got was, "Oh, he's was Grandpa Hector's (her grandfather; my great-great-grandfather) brother." Not only can grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles provide great information, I was able to garner great information from relatives who are my grandparents' cousins.

     Also, be patient and courteous. Develop a rapport with older family members so that you will be able to reach out to them more as you travel down your genealogical journey. As you begin to uncover your roots, you will have more questions.

   2.  Gather Records You and Your Family May
        Already Have

     These documents include, but are not limited to, the following:

     • Birth records
Old family papers (divorce records, insurance papers, membership cards,
       old church programs, military discharge papers, property deeds, any
       sources with names and dates)
Family Bible
Visit cemeteries for historical data.

"When an elder dies, a great library and archives burn to the ground."


. Read books about African-American Genealogy

     Books about or centered around African-American genealogy are available. These books can provide you with valuable information about more resources that are used to trace African-American history. They discuss many aspects of African-American genealogy.

     These books include:

  •      (1) Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery by Melvin J. Collier
         (2) Finding A Place Called Home,
    A Guide to African-American Genealogy
          and Historical Identity
    by Dr. Dee Parmer Woodtor
         (3) Black Roots
    by Tony Burroughs


Click book cover for more about this unique,
fascinating story of discovery and triumph.

4. Research, Study, and Analyze Federal Census Records

    Armed with names, dates, and places, head to the place that has census records. Such places include state archives departments, city libraries, libraries at some major universities/colleges, family history centers, national and regional archives, etc. Don't forget to take some money with you for copying purposes. Also, for a fee, you can access census records online at Ancestry.com.

     The 1940 census is the latest census that was made available to the public on April 2, 2012. See http://www.1940census.net/. Work from the known to the unknown by starting with the 1940 census and continue to the 1930, 1920. 1910, 1900, 1880, and the 1870 census. Unfortunately, the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire. Censuses prior to 1870 only included whites and free people of color. If you are viewing microfilmed census records instead of the digital images on Ancestry.com, a soundex is available for the 1930, 1920, 1910, 1900, and 1880.  Locate your family in the soundex first, which will tell you exactly where to find them on the county census records. However, the 1880 soundex only contain families with at least one child who was 10 years old or younger. If you can't find your folk in the 1880 soundex, then browse through the 1880 county census. Also, be aware that a lot of county boundaries changed. It is possible that families found in the 1870 census were in the 1880 census of another county and they never moved.

     When you find your family in the census, make photocopies of that page and several of the pages before and after that one. Pay attention to their neighbors. It was common for family members to live close to each other. Plan to go back and view the census records again and again and again. Trust me, you won't regret it. I've found many family members just browsing the census in a specific area where I knew most of my family lived. Ask older family members about the names of the other families you will find living near your ancestors. They may be able to identify them. Also, record all of the families that have the same surnames as your ancestors who were living in the same county, especially the same district.

The following information was recorded in the 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, & 1940 Census records:

• Name (head of household)
• Names of the people in the household and the relationship to the head of household
• Sex, Race, Age
• Marital status
• Number of years married (may not have been asked in some counties in 1880) or the age when first married (asked in 1930 and 1940)
• Place of birth
• Place of birth of father and mother (not recorded in the 1940 census)
• Occupation 

The following additional information was recorded in the 1900 Census records:

• Month and year of birth
• Number of children a mother had given birth to and how many of those children are living (also asked on the 1910 census)  

The 1870 Census records only provide the following information:

• Names
• Sex, Race, Age
• Place of birth
• Occupation

Note: The 1870 census does not list the relationships to the head of household.

     The 1870 Census is very important in African-American genealogy research. It was very often the first official record that recorded former enslaved African-Americans by their first name and last name. It is also important because the 1870 census was done just five years after slavery. Therefore, for most African-American adults found in the 1870 census records, they were enslaved just five years prior.

     Many African Americans living together in the 1870 census had lived together earlier as a family group on their former enslaver’s farms/plantations and continued to depend upon these relationships even though some were not of blood relations. In 1870, you may often run across other families with the same last names as your ancestors. Some of them were blood relatives and some were not. However, it is very likely that all of them had labored on the same farm/plantation as slaves. Elderly family members may be able to determine which families were blood related.

5. Search for other important documents.

Such important documents include:

  • marriage records
    death certificates
    birth certificates
    family obituaries
    pension records
    Social Security applications 
    Educable Children's Records (for Mississippi researchers)
    There are many more records to explore. Order Mississippi to Africa, A Journey of Discovery
       to gain more insight.

     From marriage records, maiden names can be learned. Also, in some counties, the marriage license applications can be found. Often, those documents list the parents’ names. Marriage records can be obtained from county courthouses and state archive departments.  Pay attention to the other names of witnesses on marriage certificates. Often times, they were family members.

     Death certificates are valuable because they contain information such as the name of the spouse, the father's name, the mother's maiden name, the birthplace, the birth date, the place of burial, etc. Also from birth certificates, the parents’ names and the place of birth can be learned.  Those records are typically found at state vital records departments and at state archive departments.

     If you have knowledge that an ancestor or relative may have fought in the Civil War, try to locate his pension records which are stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  Over 200,000 African-American men served in the Union Army. The pension records of these soldiers often contain a wealth of information.  View the database at the USCT website.

     Social Security applications are valuable sources. They contain the father’s name, mother’s maiden name, birthplace, etc. Their database can be accessed on the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) website with instructions on how to order applications.

     The state of Mississippi did a census of all of the children called Educable Children's List.  These lists were started in 1878, recording all of the names of all school-age children between the age of 5 and 21 years old for each county.  The age and sex of each child were recorded.  Most of the records were taken every 4 years.  After 1878, the records were divided into districts and by household with the name of a guardian, typically a parent.  Also, after 1878, the lists were racially divided.  These records can be located at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and also at some county courthouses.  The 1885 - 1896 records are a good substitute for the 20-year-gap in the census that was caused with the destruction of the 1890 Census by fire.

     Once you are able to uncover names of more family members from these documents, plan to search for them in the census records as well. Not only trace direct ancestors, it can also be beneficial to trace other relatives that were known by family members. On one occasion when talking with a family member, she mentioned the name of one of my paternal great-grandmother’s older brothers. I was able to find this relative in the census records. In his household was his mother. Tracing this relative led me to the name of another ancestor, a great-great-grandmother.

6. For enslaved ancestors, find the name of the slave-owner(s). 

     Most African Americans’ ancestors were enslaved before the end of the Civil War, especially if your family roots hailed from the South. There were more than 4,000,000 enslaved African Americans in the South when the Civil War began in 1861. Only a small percentage of African-American families, especially in the South, were actually free before the Civil War. It has been estimated that there were more than 200,000 free African Americans in the South and in the North. Talk to your elderly relatives to see if your ancestors were free people of color.

     If you are able to locate your ancestors all the way back to the 1870 census, then you have successfully reached the point known as the 1870 Brick Wall. If your ancestors were enslaved during and before the Civil War (1861-1865), there is only one way to knock down that brick wall. It is imperative to find the name of the slave-owning family to research for information about your ancestors. Slave ancestral research can not be done without knowing the name of the slave-owner(s).

     At first, I thought that most African Americans took the name of the last slave-owner.  When researching my family roots, I found that to not be true.  Some did take the last slave-owner's name, but a lot of former slaves didn't.  

     If the slave-owner's name wasn’t passed down in your family’s oral history, the first thing to do is assume that your ancestors took the last name of the last owner.  Check the 1850 & 1860 Slave Schedule for the county where your ancestors were living in 1870 and/or 1880 to see if there were any persons with the same last names as your ancestors who owned slaves.  Slave schedules are censuses that contain the slave-owners’ names and the age, sex, and color of each of their slaves. Unfortunately, very few names of slaves were recorded. First names were only recorded for slaves 100 years old or older.  Also, check the 1850 & 1860 census records to see if there were any white families with the same last names.  Some people were omitted in the slave schedules. 

     Wills, probate and estate records are the most valuable resources in tracing enslaved ancestors. These were records on the slave-owner. They often contain the names of slaves frequently listed in the wills and estate inventories. If you find the name of a potential slave-owner from the slave schedules or tax records, check to see if he left a will. Also search for his probate & estate records.  When a person died leaving a will, he died testate. His estate was distributed according to his will. These distributions were recorded in the estate records. When a person died without leaving a will, he died intestate. However, his property was distributed according to the inheritance laws of the State. A court-appointed administrator was responsible for taking a complete inventory of the estate. If the person died testate or intestate before 1865 and he was the owner of slaves, his court records should include the names of his slaves as well their ages or value.

     If you find a possible female owner in the slave schedule, then she was likely a widow.  Research to find out her husband's name and search for his court records.  Also, look at county records for any wills and estate records of persons with the same last name of your ancestors.   These records can be found at the courthouse in the county where the person died. Most state archive departments have these records on microfilm.   Also, microfilms containing wills and estate records can be ordered through your local or nearest Family History Center.

     Check tax records prior to 1865 for anyone with your family surname to see if they paid taxes on any slaves. Tax records can be found at county courthouses and at state archive departments.  Additional slave-owners’ names, which may have been omitted in the slave schedules, can be found in tax records.

     Also, check your libraries for any published resources for the counties in which you are researching.  Many counties have published history books that contain a lot of good information about the county and some of its early families.  I've been fortunate to find good information on a couple of slave-holding families from those types of published resources. In order to learn more your ancestors, you will have to learn more about the slave-holding families as well.

Gain much more knowledge and insight about African-American Genealogy from
Mississippi to Africa, A Journey of Discovery

For more information about this book, the author can be contacted at


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