Have A Question? Chat With Us.

This is a 24/7 chat service provided through Maryland AskUsNow!.

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:

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

Recommended Resources



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.

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.

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.).


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.

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