Researching African American Genealogy
February is Black History Month in the U.S., where we celebrate and remember the past and present achievements of African-Americans. If you are researching your African-American heritage, finding documentation about your ancestors before 1870 can be a challenge. Here are a few resources you may find helpful in your research:
U.S. Census Records
Census records from 1850 and 1860 included special slave schedules, which provide the name of the slave owner and the number of slaves they owned, listed by age and gender. Although the names of the slaves were not recorded, this may help you discover the name of your ancestor’s owner or give you an idea about how many slaves were in the household. You can also take a look at the Census Free Population Schedules, which recorded the names of free slaves living in the northern states before the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation. By 1870, the U.S. Census recorded former slaves as citizens of the U.S.
One of the most valuable resources you may encounter is the records from the Freedman’s Bureau, a U.S. federal government agency created to aid freed slaves by providing food, housing, education, healthcare and employment. You may also find in these records labor contracts, court cases and marriage registrations. The Freedman’s Bank was a financial organization created by the government to encourage and guide the economic development of the newly freed slaves. These records are valuable for the genealogists researching African-Americans after the Civil War. You can fine records of names, age, place of birth, residence, occupation, names of parents, spouses, siblings and in some cases, the names of former slave owners.
Civil War Records
Many African-Americans served in on both sides of the U.S. Civil War. In these records you can learn a soldier’s name, rank and unit and date he left the service. The Civil War Solidiers and Sailors System (CWSS) is a great site to find out what unit your ancestor may have served.
Journals and oral histories from former slaves are an incredibly rich genealogical resource. During the 1930s, The Library of Congress collected more than 2,300 narratives from former slaves. You can find these oral narratives transcribed online along with over 500 photographs of former slaves. Perhaps you may find your ancestor’s story here in their own words.