Linda Clyde | Jun 12, 2017

4 Easy-to-Follow Steps for African-American Genealogy Newbies

This is the first of a two-part series exploring getting started with African-American genealogy. Read part two.

African American genealogy can be a little tricky for the newbie. Thankfully, 2017 RootsTech presenter Nicka Smith shared several ideas to help those who are just getting started.

Step 1: Capture


Contrary to modern instinct, capturing your family story doesn’t begin online—it begins with you.

“Always start with you,” Smith said. “I have to start every presentation like this because so many folks are starting online, and they don’t know that they have left steps off to beginning the process.”

Begin by writing down known ancestors on a pedigree chart. Go back as far as you can. “There’s just an experience you have when you’re able to articulate it on paper. It’s just different,” said Smith.

Another reason Smith advocates writing down your ancestry by hand is that it helps eliminate confusion that can sometimes occur online.

“When you go and you start a tree, and especially in African-American families, we’ve named people the same name for six generations, and you can’t remember if Clarence Joe is your uncle or if he’s your mother’s brother,” she said jokingly. The act of writing has a way of cementing names and their proper places on the family tree in your mind.

Step 2: Gather

After you’ve captured everything you personally have, it’s time to reach out to your parents, siblings, and extended relatives to document the people and facts that you don’t know. Do what you can to gather documents from your own home and from the homes of your relatives. “People often forget how much they have at home,” Smith noted.

Try reaching out to relatives by phone, email, or social media. In good humor, Smith suggested honing in on the family pack rat, using food as bribery, and taking a quality nap before going in case the visit ends up being a little long.

Smith also says not to forget to reach out to your “fictive kin.” These are people that are close to your family but are not related. Smith mentioned “Miss Josephine who lived down the street” from her family when she was growing up. “That’s my mom’s best friend,” she said. “I call her Aunt Josephine; she’s not really an aunt. That’s huge in the black community. We have a whole bunch of fictive kin. Everybody’s our cousin, right? And sometimes they are, but sometimes they aren’t.” These individuals can offer a wellspring of information, so don’t forget them when you’re in the gathering stage.

Step 3: Search

After you’ve gone through the capturing and gathering steps, you’re finally ready to start searching online, and there are many, many places to look. Here are a few places you could start:

  • Vital records: These include birth, marriage, and death records.
  • Family-supplied records: These could include funeral programs, obituaries, a family Bible, and anything else your family has documented.
  • United States census records: These go from 1790 to 1940. Census records between 1790 and 1840 do not include the names of slaves or free blacks; they include only the names of the head of household. The names of free blacks were included in the 1850 and 1860 censuses, but the names of all African Americans were not included until 1870. However, Smith points out that before 1870, 10 percent of the African-American population was free, so you shouldn’t limit your research to censuses that were taken after 1870.
  • State-specific records: Some states have unique records. These could include vital records, indexes, registers, and others.
  • Pre-emancipation records: These include manumissions (documents that formally free individuals from slavery), wills and probate records, runaway slave ads, court records, property and tax records, registers for free people of color, church records, military pensions, Native American rolls and censuses, and others.
  • Post-emancipation records: These include records from the Freedman’s Bank, Freedmen’s Bureau, newspapers, Dawes Commission, Homestead Act, military records (pensions records, draft cards, and discharge papers), and others.

Be mindful in your research. “Knowledge of geography is important when it comes to genealogy,” Smith said. Timelines are also important “because what they do is they establish where your family was at a given time, and they help you understand where the gaps are in your research and your documents.” Here are a couple points to keep in mind:

  • Geography: Knowing where your ancestors lived can provide a great deal of context surrounding their lives. If you’re looking for a town but can’t find it on Google Maps, try using the US Geological Survey (USGS). It has a names information system that includes places that no longer exist. “You plug in the latitude and longitude into Google Maps, and it’ll pop it right up today where it is,” Smith said.
  • Timelines: Understanding timelines can help you get a clear picture of who your ancestors were. There are many places to look online to get started with building a timeline, such as FamilySearch,, and HistoryLines.

Step 4: Stay Organized

When it comes to staying organized, Smith suggested using a system that works for you: “Some people love online trees. Some people like file folders. Some people like a mix of both,” but no matter what, “name your files something that’s super obvious.”

As you go about organizing the information you find, remember to make it easy for anyone to step in and understand what they’re looking at without explanation. Smith illustrated this point by saying, “Imagine if you became bedridden, or something happened to you, and you had no succession plan for your research, and people could not make heads or tails of your filing system. Whether it was paper files or it was on your computer.”

Case in point—stay organized. You won’t live forever, but you hope that your research will. Give it the best chance of survival right from the start.

What tips can you share for getting started in African-American genealogy? Tweet us @RootsTechConf to join the conversation. Join us next week for part two of this series.

Linda Clyde

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