Linda Clyde | Jun 21, 2017

Key Records for African-American Genealogy Newbies

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

Racial diversity has increased a great deal in recent generations. In fact, RootsTech 2017 presenter Nicka Smith says, “America’s youth … are more diverse than the generations that preceded them. … Many of these millennials identify as African American and have relatives who … are eager to help them trace their genealogy.”

It doesn’t take long for budding African-American genealogists to find themselves tracing family lines not only to Africa but to Europe and other continents as well.

“For the first time [in U.S. history], more than 50 percent of children under age five are minorities,” Smith said. She likened finding an African American who is 100 percent African to finding a unicorn. Speaking of Americans in general, she said, “Our babies are multiracial.”

Many millennials are eager to trace their genealogy but are unsure where to begin. In her presentation, Smith offered helpful ways to get started, specifically encouraging newbies to start with themselves. Her suggestions fall under the following steps:

  1. Capture what you already know.
  2. Gather information from family and friends.
  3. Search the internet.
  4. Study geography and timelines.
  5. Stay organized.

Acknowledge America’s Past

When beginning to research African-American genealogy, you must be prepared to encounter difficult and tragic information, which includes slavery and racial discrimination. Smith spoke of facing American history and ongoing challenges between the races when she said, “We have to have these conversations. We have to see this so it becomes more real.”

Similarly, we can’t assume that the information we discover has nothing to do with us. It does. “We all have this legacy,” Smith said. “We live here; we’re Americans. This is a blot on our lives, but we’re better. We’ve made it past this. We can accept it, and the way to do that is to confront it head on and to talk about it.”

Recognize African-American Genealogy Myths

Drawing common myths about African-American genealogy from the audience, Smith confirmed the following statements to be false.

  • You won’t find any helpful information prior to 1870.
  • Every former slave took his or her owner’s last name.
  • Ancestry.com is not for black people.
  • Ancestry.com is the only place you need to look.
  • You can get everything you want online.
  • Everyone who was of African descent was enslaved.
  • Slaves didn’t have last names before emancipation.

Look for Information

After you’ve captured and recorded all of the information you personally know about your family and have gathered information from family and friends, you’re ready to start digging deeper. Smith shared a long list of places to look for additional information.

  • Vital records. These are a great place to start. Look for birth, marriage, and death certificates. As far as birth certificates are concerned, “don’t automatically assume somebody has a birth certificate,” Smith advised. “A lot of people—especially when they start getting into genealogy—they forget that we didn’t always have birth certificates. That’s a 20th-century invention.” So from 1915 onward, you’re more likely to find a birth record.
  • Slave schedules. Before African-American names and families were collected in the U.S. census, they were recorded in slave schedules, or inventory records that almost never mentioned names. Instead, they mentioned age, sex, and a racial designation such as black or mulatto. They sometimes listed skills such as carpenter or blacksmith. Infirmities and disabilities were also occasionally listed.
  • Cemetery records, mortuary records, and funeral programs. African Americans tend to be very loyal to mortuaries. “Because of segregation, we would only patronize businesses of people that would accept us,” Smith said. Families typically stayed with the same mortuary for several generations. If you visit mortuaries, make sure to look up records and cemeteries. According to Smith, funeral programs are “huge in the African-American community.” Smith also mentioned that there is often a friend or family member that collects those programs.
  • Family Bibles. Families often recorded names as well as birth, marriage, and death dates in the family Bible. Bibles were available in stores and were even peddled by door-to-door salesmen. A major selling point of these Bibles was the records or register sections found in the center of the book, often between the Old and New Testaments.
  • NAACP. Consider the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) when doing searches. Smith explained that membership cards can give you “a date, place, time, and a name for a particular person.” “You can write to the NAACP or any other membership organization,” Smith suggested.
  • U.S. census records. When speaking of searching U.S. census records, Smith posed a question: “Why would I [suggest looking at] the census from 1790 to 1940?” Many believe that searching a U.S. census for African Americans before the 1870 census (the first census after slavery was abolished) will be fruitless, because slaves were not included on census records. However, approximately 10 percent of African Americans were free prior to the abolition of slavery and were listed with whites in earlier censuses. Make sure to check both federal and state census records.
  • Freedmen’s Bureau. After the Civil War, the U.S. Congress set out to help former black slaves and poor whites from the South. The Freedmen’s Bureau is a collection of records resulting from that effort. It originated from the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.
  • Property and tax records. “Black folks owned property,” said Smith. Check county records on the FamilySearch Wiki. “Pull up the location of where your ancestors lived, go and pull those deed indexes [and] conveyance indexes up, and see if your ancestors owned land or property,” Smith said. “If they sold a horse, if they sold a hog, whatever. A lot of that stuff is documented at the county level.”
  • Military records. Many people believe that African Americans were in the military only starting with the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. This isn’t true. African-American patriots can be found as early as the Revolutionary War.
  • American Red Cross. This is another organization that might have relevant records. Smith mentioned that “during wartime they would hold events … where folks had to register. You can actually write to the Red Cross for records, and they will provide them.”

Smith encouraged taking the time to share any information you discover with family. “If you’re holding on to a will, a journal, [or] anything that mentions the name[s] of slaves, I highly suggest you blog about it. Write about it; get the information out online.”

“We’re here to document people that we don’t know and to leave a trail behind for people who will never know us,” Smith said. “The bottom line is we want to be remembered, and we want our ancestors to be remembered.”

Linda Clyde

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