African American Genealogy Part VII: Birth, Marriage, and Death Records

Posted October 14, 2011 by SharonGeni | One Comment

This blog series provides information on how to conduct family research — with a special focus on the challenges that apply for African Americans. Our goal is to help you appreciate history, learn how to research your family and be inspired to join a community – – that seeks to unite the entire world into one big family. Join us for an adventure that is sure to last a lifetime!

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Birth, Marriage, and Death Records

by Sharon Leslie Morgan

As you proceed with your research, you will probably want to obtain copies of certain key documents that prove your findings. These would most certainly include birth, death and marriage certificates. All of these records validate a person’s identity and can give you clues to preceding generations. These types of records were kept at the county level of government. That means  you have to look for them through county court houses or county departments of health.

Unfortunately, laws governing the maintenance of public records did not come into existence until the twentieth century. People born before 1900 were likely born at home, brought into the world by a midwife. There is no official record of their birth. When the Social Security system came into being, many people used a census record to prove their birth date. The State of Virginia is unique in that it has birth and death records from as far back as 1853. Marriage records have been kept pretty much from the very beginning of the United States. I have found these back into the 1600s.

The situation for African Americans is that, in slavery, we were not officially allowed to marry. When it became legal to do so after Emancipation, our records were generally kept in separate record books, particularly in the South.

In general, death records are the most readily available documents, although different states have different laws regarding their release. Many states provide an index of deaths online, which will lead you to the paper certificate — which you have to pay for.

There are various places where you will find these documents. GOOGLE “vital records” for the state you are researching to find out exactly where to place your order. The average price per document is about $10, which means copies can become expensive if you order many of them. In most cases, you will have to provide a copy of your identification in order to obtain non-certified, genealogical copies of documents.

If you are lucky, you may find records kept by slaveholders. I found a diary where all the births and deaths on the plantation were dutifully recorded. But that is very rare. I also hit a gold mine with my great grandfather’s death certificate. It is the only place I ever found a name for his mother. Once I found it, I had the key to discern papers for an estate sale where she and her son were listed.

If you get your family involved on Geni, you may be able to get help paying for some of this material. As relatives learn to appreciate how much work it takes, they will see that it is only fair that the entire family share in the joy of discovery as well as the expense.


Post written by Sharon Morgan

Sharon Leslie Morgan is a marketing communications consultant and the founder and webmaster for, a site dedicated to African American family research. She is co-authoring a book entitled Gather at the Table: Steps Toward a Post-Racial America to be published by Beacon Press in 2012. These blogs express the views and opinions of the author and should not be attributed to

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