Select Your Topic
Prior to beginning your research please review the Golden Rules of Genealogy.
Researching African American Genealogy
Step 1 Start With Yourself
Identify what you already know. Start with yourself and work backward in time by filling in as much information as you can, by memory, on a pedigree chart. Try to fill out full names (including maiden names for women), relationships, and dates and locations for births, marriages, and deaths.
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Step 2 Gather Family Information
Gather home sources (birth certificates, marriage licenses, deeds, etc.) and family information. Look in the homes of parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Gather records that show family names; dates of birth, marriage, and death; places; or relationships. Older relatives will likely have more records and information than others.
Records may include:
- Newspaper clippings
- Birth, marriage, death certificates
Also look at compiled sources for any information about the family.
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Step 3 Interview Your Relatives
Interview relatives, both those who live nearby and those who live faraway. Interview them either by phone or in person. Make sure to interview the eldest living relatives; their knowledge can often fill in gaps when records become scarce.
When conducting oral interviews:
- Set up appointment (by phone for those who live far away and in person for those who live near).
- Prepare questions beforehand.
- Record the interview (ask for permission beforehand).
- Write down notes afterwards.
- Compare memories between relatives.
- Fill out family group sheets to organize ancestors according to the information learned.
Topics to cover in interviews:
When and where things happened. Location is key in genealogical research.
Names (including maiden names, nicknames, etc.)
Be aware of sensitive topics for the interviewee.
Step 4 Step Four: Collect Copies of Records
With the information learned from the records found and interviews conducted, obtain copies of more records. These records will help prove relationships and extend the family line further. Some may be online, but others may need to be ordered from county courthouses or state vital records offices.
Such records include:
- Birth, death, marriage, divorce
- Courthouse Information
- Land/probate deeds, conveyances, affidavit of heirship, guardianship
- Tax records (includes slave information)
- Voter registration
- Social security administration
- Researching African American Genealogy
Step 5 Follow UP On Death Records Clues
- Legal name of descendant
- Marital status
- Parent(s) names(s)
- Parent’s birthplaces
- Date and place of birth and death
- Who verified death
- Funeral home that handled remains
- Verification of social security number
- View Death Certificate Tips
Step 6 Search the Census
Federal census records are taken every ten years and are available from 1790 through 1940. Only the head of household was listed from 1790 to 1840. Starting in 1850, every member of the household was listed. Starting in 1880, relationships to the head of household were added. The 1870 census is the first one in which all African Americans were listed. Some state census records are also available depending on the state.
Census records usually list:
Name, age, race
Relationship to head of household
Value of property
Begin searching with the name of a person you know who would have been included in the 1940 census. If you have trouble finding the person, look for siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Most families lived only a few doors from each other.
Search Other Federal Records - National Archives
Debra L. Newman. Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in the National Archives
Records of African- American History
Besides the census, there are other federal records to look for:
Military records (especially pension records)
Mortality and veteran schedules
Social Security Death Index
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Step 7 Search State and County Records
In many cases, state and county records are the best sources for finding information. Most states and counties have an archives office. Many of these records are online, but some may only be accessible at the archives.
State and county records may include:
State censuses, Church records, Cemetery records, Vital records, Land and property records, Narratives, histories, Directories, Voter registration cards, Tax lists (this is important for slavery research), Wills and probate, Criminal and civil proceedings
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List of Substitute Records to Search
Do not stop with birth, marriage, and death events when looking for information on the family. Substitute records can include vital information and other clues about relationships.
Search for the records listed below:
- Probate records , including wills and intestate estates of surrounding counties
- Land records of surrounding counties
- Tax records of surrounding counties
- Other court records that include both civil and criminal courts of surrounding counties
- Cemetery or sexton records
- Census records
- Newspapers , containing obituaries and notices of birth, marriage, and death; in addition, search for newspaper articles mentioning your ancestor's name
- City and County directories
- Church records
- Local Histories . In some parts of the country, there are county or town histories that include biographical information about early settlers and leaders of the community.
- School records
- Military records
- Voter records
- Naturalization and Immigration records, if applicable
- Franternal organizations or societies that may have membership records of your ancestor
- Business and Occupation Records
I Found the Person I Was Looking For, What Now?
- Add any new information to your records
- Use the estimated age to calculate a birth date
- Use the age and location of the military unit to find the soldier’s family in census, church, and land records
- Continue to search the index and records to identify other relatives
- When looking for a person who had a common name, look at all the entries for the name before deciding which is correct
- You may need to compare the information of more than one family or person to make this determination
- Be aware that, as with any index, transcription errors may occur
I Can't Find the Person I'm Looking For, What Now?
- Look for variant spellings of the names. You should also look for alias names, nicknames and abbreviated names.
- Try alternative search methods such as only filling in the surname search box (or the given name search box) on the landing page leaving the other box empty and then click on search. This should return a list of everyone with that particular name. You could then browse the list for individuals that may be your ancestor.