African American Research Basics

"Willis Winn", Age about 115. Between 1936 and 1938. His story is one of the many included in the oral histories of slavery at the Library of Congress.

Many of us face challenges when conducting genealogy research. My favorite analogy is that genealogy is like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle without being able to see the picture. Now, imagine that same puzzle without the picture and missing half the pieces. This is the challenge facing many African Americans searching for their roots. The obvious obstacle to tracing African American lineage is slavery, a horrific  institution that broke families apart and made recordkeeping almost non-existent. Locating records of enslaved ancestors prior to emancipation requires researching the enslaver’s family, since most of the records where enslaved people could be named, such as probate, will, and deed records, will all be in the slave owner’s name. Although not impossible, the research can be difficult and will require thinking outside the box.

As with any genealogical research, we begin with relatives closest to us. Interview the older generation, including grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Often, family lore is based in truth, so don’t overlook it! Take note of the names, dates, and places they mention. Using what you now know, start your search with typical methods back to the Civil War. Check as many records as possible. If your ancestor is not listed in an index, check the record anyway, as some indexes may not include people from African countries. You may also find that some records are segregated, such as a separate "colored" marriage register, so always review the entire document.

As part of reentering the US after the Civil War, Southern states had to meet certain requirements, which included registering all African men over the age of 21 to vote. Many of these 1867 voter registration records haven’t survived. However, with the inclusion of information such as the "place of nativity," they can be of great help if you’re lucky enough to find that your ancestor was included.

The 1870 US Federal Census is significant because it is the first census after the Civil War. Formerly enslaved people who did not appear by name on previous census records are listed by name, along with everyone else living in their household. You will notice that many of them may be living near where they lived when they were enslaved. Look at their neighbors records. Do any of them share the same last name as your ancestors? If the neighbors are listed as white, it could be that your ancestors were once enslaved by them or members of their families. It was not uncommon for formerly enslaved people to take on the surname of their enslavers after they were freed.

At the time of the Civil War (1861–1865) about 90 percent of people from African countries living in the United States were enslaved. If an ancestor was free prior to emancipation, you may be able to locate them on early census records under their own name. The 1850 and 1860 US Federal Census recorded all free individuals in a household by name. In prior records, only the head of the household’s name will appear, but the record will contain the number of people in each age range in the household. Free African Americans were recorded under the columns titled "Free Colored Persons."

The 1850 and 1860 censuses had slave schedules published separately. These were lists of slave owners and how many enslaved people they owned. I suggest comparing these schedules to the 1870 census results. Does the enslaver’s name on those schedules show up as a surname of your ancestors who live in the same area?

Additional resources:

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (or Freedmen›s Bureau)

Established to provide relief for refugees and formerly enslaved people, the Freedmen’s Bureau also assisted many African people living in the US in reuniting with relatives at the end of the Civil War. Though officially disbanded in 1872, the bureau still maintains detailed records concerning military service, plantation information, slave owner names, as well as birth, marriage, and death certificates. Find out more at the FamilySearch wiki page as well as how to access.

Records of United States Colored Troops in the Civil War

Over 186,000 African Americans served as part of the United States Colored Troops. Some of the records are available online. You can read more about the collection in the FamilySearch wiki page as well as how to access.

Voices from the Days of Slavery

The US Library of Congress transcribed oral histories of survivors of slavery. Search to find their stories and take the time to really listen.

My own skills have been pushed to the edge while helping others search for their African American roots. Persistence is the key, since this research rarely follows a straight line. That one last puzzle piece usually doesn’t exist. But I will say that the months and years of effort fade into the background when you make a connection with an ancestor. There’s so much more that won’t fit in this little column, so I’ll just say, take that first step. It’ll all be worth it in the end.

Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a member of the National Genealogical Society and Association of Professional Genealogists.  She is a Board member and President of the Niagara County Genealogical Society, guest lecturer, freelance writer and owner of Noella’s Daughter Genealogy. Send questions or comments to her at

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