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Why Is African American Genealogy Different?

African American genealogical research is different from other ethnic backgrounds. 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.

illustration: Arrival of freedmen and their families at Baltimore, Maryland, from Digital Maryland

Illlustrated depiction of the arrival of freedmen and their families at Baltimore, Maryland in 1865. From the Digital Maryland collection, Views of African American Life in Maryland.

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!

Getting 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.

Gather Oral Histories & 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, when the photo was taken, and if it’s a specific occasion, such as a birthday, graduation, or baptism.

African American family snapshot  - old photo of family in a vintage car
marriage license, family tree, and other documents

Sources for Researching African American Genealogy

Records and Documents

The following sources have records 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

It’s more difficult to research prior to 1868, but it doesn’t mean there are no 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



Research Databases

  • Ancestry Library Edition - With more than 1.5 billion names in over 4,000 databases, Ancestry Library Edition includes records from the United States Census; military records; court, land and probate records; vital and church records; directories; passenger lists and more! (Please note that this database is only accessible from within the library.)
  • Heritage Quest - Contains essential collections of genealogical and historical sources with coverage dating back to the 1700s, including the Freedman's Bank Records and over 40,000 family histories, local histories, city directories, and other books.
  • Fold 3 Library Edition- Access to military records, including the stories, photos, and personal documents of the men and women who served.
  • Historical Newspapers - Links to three separate databases including Library Edition and Historical Black Newspapers which includes several titles such as Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, and Baltimore-Afro American.
  • Current Newspapers - Links to several databases including one titled Black Newspapers.
  • Maryland Newspapers- Links to several contemporary Maryland periodicals including free access to The Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Banner.
  • Maryland Sanborn Maps - Browse a selection of Maryland and Washington DC Sanborn Maps from 1890 - 1953. Users have the ability to easily manipulate the maps, magnify and zoom in on specific sections, and layer maps from different years.
Maryland Department
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Maryland Department

The Maryland Department is a comprehensive collection of materials related to the state of Maryland.

African American Department
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African American Department Reading Room

African American Department

The African American Collection is an in-depth collection of fiction and nonfiction resources that pertain to the history and culture of African Americans.

Genealogy & Family History Research Guide
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Genealogy and family history research - old family photographs and leaves

Genealogy & Family History Research Guide

Research your family history and genealogy with extensive resources, both in person and online.

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