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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.

Enoch Pratt Subject Guides and Information 




  • Beasley, Donna. Family Pride: The Complete Guide to Tracing African-American Genealogy. New York: Macmillan, 1997. E185.96 .B36 1997 
    Practical, easy-to-use information and personal accounts provide step-by-step instructions on how to research your African American family history and genealogy.
  • Burroughs, Tony. A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. E185.96 .B94 2001 
    Although focusing on those starting to research their family history, the author provides much needed and valuable guidelines and tips that can benefit even the more advanced researcher.
  • 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 
    Comprehensive guide to tracing your African American family tree including methods of searching and interpreting records, interviewing, where to find records, using the Internet, and family reunions.


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)
    The African American Biographical Database (AABD) brings together in one resource the biographies of thousands of African Americans, many not to be found in any other reference source. These biographical sketches have been carefully assembled from biographical dictionaries and other sources. This extraordinary collection contains extended narratives of both the famous and the everyday person. Their stories are pivotal to an understanding of the Black American experience over the last two centuries.
  • Ancestry Library Edition (accessible in all Pratt Library branches)
    Access over one billion names and search more than 2,750 databases, with new databases added daily. Search birth, marriage, and death records. Discover census indexes, military records, and U.S. Civil War databases. View original census records, accessing detail only available through original records.
  • Heritage Quest (accessible in all Pratt Library branches, or from home with your Pratt Library card)
    Contains over 25,000 family and local histories as well as the Federal U.S. Census through 1790-1930.

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

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