Print this page — Done printing
OR search: Catalog | Internet
African American Department Collection and State Library Resources
     

 African American Genealogy

 

Are you trying to find your roots? If you’re running into some brick walls with your genealogical research, or just don’t know how to get started, this guide should be helpful to you.

Why Is African American Genealogy Different? 


Is African American genealogical research different from other ethnic backgrounds? You bet it is! Because slaves were considered property, they were prohibited from reading, writing, attending school, legally marrying, owning land, owning a business, voting, and participating in many other activities that generate records on which much genealogical research is based.

 

Citizenship was granted in 1868 to slaves, an action that had an impact on records like letters, diaries, wills, census records, land deeds, voter registrations, and school records.

However, like people of that time, written documents were sometimes segregated. These records might be kept in separate files or listed in the back of record books. Finding aids may also have these complications. For example, many military records of African Americans are indexed separately.

Finally, African American genealogy and history has not been widely researched. When Alex Haley wrote his best-selling book Roots , many people began to question their elders about their past and research their own family histories. But this has only occurred in the most recent past. There’s a lot of history to try to catch up with!

 

How Does Genealogy Differ from Family History? 


Genealogy uses documents and records to verify the dates and locations of events such as births, deaths, and marriages. Family history is the story of what ancestors did when they were alive.

 

How Do I Get Started? 


Start with yourself and work backwards. Write down where and when you were born. If you’ve been married, list that as well. Make sure you have documents such as your birth and marriage certificates.

Most birth certificates list the mother and father, where they were born, and how old they were at the time of the birth. That’s your next step. You can start with your mother’s or your father’s side. Collect all of their documents.

Each state has a vital records office, which will give you copies of documents for a fee. You can continue to research this way until you can no longer locate the documents you need.

Does this mean you’re done? Not at all! It just means that you’re ready to use other sources to continue your search.

 

Gather Oral Histories and Family Records


Try to write your own autobiography. Start with yourself and work backwards, writing everything you know about your parents, grandparents, and so forth. Interviewing the elders in your family is always helpful. Ask them what they can remember about what life was like when they were younger, and about the ancestors they remember.

 

Find family papers, records, photos, and souvenirs. Make sure to write on the backs of photos who the people are on the front. If you know when the photo was taken, write that, too, and of course if it’s a specific occasion, such as a birthday or graduation or baptism.

 

Sources for Researching African American Genealogy 


Records and Documents 

The following are some sources of records to use after 1870:

 

  • Cemeteries
  • Funeral homes
  • Birth and death certifications
  • Marriage and divorce records
  • Obituaries
  • Published biographies and family histories
  • Old city directories and telephone directories
  • Social security records
  • U.S. census records
  • African colonization societies

Things get more difficult prior to 1868, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t ANY records. You will want to try to:

  • Identify the last slave owner
    • Manumissions and Certificates of Freedom
    • Business receipts and contracts
     
  • Research slave owner and slavery history
    • Runaway slave advertisements and legal notices
    • Bounty lists
    • Freedmen’s Bureau 
      Established in the War Department by an act of March 3, 1865 the Bureau supervised all relief and educational activities relating to refugees and freedmen, including issuing rations, clothing, and medicine.
     
  • Explore Canadian and Caribbean transits
    • Slaves were sent to ports other than those in the United States. Many slaves were sent to the Caribbean first and then to the U.S., some even after a generation or more.
     

Recommended Resources


Internet 


 

Books 

  • Burroughs, Tony. Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. E185.96 .B94 2001 

              Focuses on preparing reader to conduct a well-organized search. Includes didactic case studies from a renowned

              researcher of African American genealogy (the author) and other researchers, and  many images of sample

              genealogical documents with feedback on how to make use of them. 

  • Smith, Franklin Carter. A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering your African-American Ancestors : how to find and record your unique heritage. Ohio: Betterway Books, 2003. E185.96 .S6514 2003Q

              Beginning  chapters describe how to conduct prep work and make use of historical governmental records; middle

              chapters highlight relevant customs (e.g. naming practices) and information available through research of slaveholder

              families; and ending chapters are didactic case studies.

  • Woodtor, Dee. Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity. New York: Random House, 1999. E185.96 .W69 1999 

             A highly detailed how-to-manual that provides readers a historical and cultural context. Points out typically overlooked

             records, how to assess validity of records, and provides case studies, images and diagrams, and related topics

             (e.g.  family reunions, publication of findings, etc.).

Databases 


The Pratt Library subscribes to a number of electronic databases, many of which can be accessed either in the Library or from home with a Pratt Library Card.

 

  • African American Biographical Database (accessible in all Pratt Library branches, or from home with your Pratt Library card)
    Offers biographical sketches, carefully assembled from biographical dictionaries, yearbooks, directories, histories, personal accounts, and other published sources, covering both famous and everyday persons, living and working in the United States from 1790 to 1950.
  • America's Obituaries and Death Notices (accessible in all Pratt Library branches, or from home with your Pratt Library card)
    Offers obituaries or death notices indexed by the name of the deceased person, to make searching easier and more precise. In addition, the text of each is searchable, making it easy to find what you're looking for using a place of residence, occupation, names of family members, or other personal information.
  • Ancestry Library Edition (accessible in all Pratt Library branches)
    Home page boasts quick links to databases of many useful collections including: London Parish Records; Birth, Marriage & Death Records (SSDI); Military; Tax, Criminal, Land & Wills; Stories, Memories & Histories; Pictures; City Directories; Immigration & Travel; Schools, Directories & Church Histories; Reference Dictionaries & Almanacs; Newspapers; Maps, Atlases & Gazetteers. Also features downloadable charts and forms, a learning center with research guides, and message boards.
  • Baltimore Afro-American - Historical Newspaper (1893-1988) (accessible in all Pratt Library branches, or from home with your Pratt Library card)
    This historical newspaper provides genealogists, researchers and scholars with online, easily-searchable first-hand accounts and unparalleled coverage of the politics, society and events of the time.
  • Baltimore Sun, Historical (1836-1987) (accessible in all Pratt Library branches, or from home with your Pratt Library card)
    This historical newspaper provides genealogists, researchers and scholars with online, easily-searchable first-hand accounts and unparalleled coverage of the politics, society and events of the time.
  • Biography and Genealogy Master Index (accessible in all Pratt Library branches, or from home with your Pratt Library card)
    The Biography and Genealogy Master Index is a comprehensive index to more than 10 million biographical sketches in over 1000 current and retrospective biographical dictionaries, covering both contemporary and historical figures throughout the world. Each citation sites the name, birth, and death dates as well as a complete citation for all references.
  • Black Newspapers (accessible in all Pratt Library branches, or from home with your Pratt Library card)
    Black Newspapers is a collection of current newspapers providing access to news from 1989-present. Includes Afro-American Red Star, Call & Post (A&I), Chicago Defender, Houston Post (A&I), Michigan Chronicle, Milwaukee Courier, Muslim Journal (A&I), New Journal & Guide (A&I), New York Amsterdam News, Los Angeles Sentinel, and Washington Informer.
  • Heritage Quest (accessible in all Pratt Library branches, or from home with your Pratt Library card)
    Home page offers links to several databases: U.S. Census schedules for 1790-1940 (including select Non-Population and Slave schedules), Freedman's Bank,  Family History Books and Directories (over 20,000 books are included, as well as a separate link to Periodical Source Index Archive - PERSI), Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, and the U.S. Serial Set (information about people and places in the Memorials, Petitions and Private Relief Actions of the U.S. Congress). Also features research aids and historical maps.
  • Historical Newspapers (accessible in all Pratt Library branches, or from home with your Pratt Library card)
    The ProQuest Historical Newspapers database offers the original news articles exactly as they appeared to the original readers decades ago. The articles are PDF images that can be downloaded, printed or emailed. Includes
    Baltimore Afro-American - 1893-1988, Chicago Tribune - 1849 - 1987, Christian Science Monitor - 1908 - 1997, The Baltimore Sun - 1837-1987, The New York Times - 1851 - 2007, The Wall Street Journal - 1889 - 1993, and The Washington Post - 1877 - 1994.
  • Maryland Historical Newspapers (accessible in all Pratt Library branches, or from home with your Pratt Library card)
    Includes three Maryland newspapers: Baltimore Sun Historical Archive, 1837 – 1901 (Baltimore), and minimal coverage of Chestertown Transcript, 1866 -1876 (Chestertown) and National American, 1859-1866 (Bel Air).
  • Sanborn Maps (Digital) - Maryland (accessible in all Pratt Library branches, or from home with your Pratt Library card)
    Users have the ability to easily manipulate the maps, magnify and zoom in on specific sections, and layer maps from from 1890-1953.

Ask Us 


If you have any questions about how to get started or need help using some of these sources, please e-mail us, call (410) 361-9287, or contact us by snail-mail:

 

African American Department
Enoch Pratt Free Library
State Library Resource Center
400 Cathedral Street
Baltimore, MD 21201

Print this page — Done printing