Tracing African-American Genealogy poses a special challenge for the descendants of black African slaves who were brought to America to be sold as slaves during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is estimated that about 400,000 black Africans were taken away from their homeland and loved ones to become slaves in North America.
Since slaves didn’t have legal rights, the search for African-American genealogy is not helped by traditional resources of the period. You will need to be prepared for a methodical and well-organized search that should begin with your present day black relatives and move backward step-by-step.
Best Tips for African-American Genealogy
Every search for family history begins with you. Write down a chronology of your life; relatives you know by name and relationships, important events in your life and family gatherings you remember. Try to interview the oldest family members you can find. Ask living relatives if you can copy any documents and photos they have. Ask about the origin of family names or nicknames that may have been handed down.
Search for the last known slave owner: The U.S. Free Population Schedules of the 1860 Census will list black Africans who were not slaves(fpoc)when the Civil War broke out. There were an estimated 40,000 free blacks at that time. It’s possible your ancestor may have been freed by then. If your ancestor(s) was a slave, then you’ll need to find the last slave owner. Some slaves took the name of their owner, but many didn’t. Some helpful resources: slave narratives, Southern Claims Commission, Freedman’s Bureau, records pertaining to the U.S. Colored Troops.
Search slave owner records: Since slaves were considered property, if you can find the most recent slave owner of your family member, you may be able to trace records of what he did with his property: wills, probate, bills of sale, anything that might show where he purchased your ancestor or their relationship to each other.
Not everyone will have the success of Alex Haley, the author of “Roots” in tracing his ancestry back to Africa and “Kunta Kinte”. Many times it just is not possible. Most slaves who were brought to America came from a small region on the coast bordering the Atlantic between the Congo and Gambia Rivers.
If you hit a dead-end anywhere along the line, immerse yourself in slave history. Study the Underground Railroad; visit important landmarks of the slave period. By learning all you can about your ancestors’ probable lifestyle, you will take away the important lessons they would have wanted you to have.
Tracing African-American genealogy is a challenging undertaking that will require all the perseverance you can muster. But the search is nothing in comparison to the real life experiences your ancestors lived through so that you could be who you are today.
by Leonard Smith