African American Genealogy: Unearthing Your Family’s Past, From the Present to the Civil War

The Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) published my article in their newsletter, BCALA News, Spring 2015, Volume 42 Issue 2, pp 56-60. I am re-posting it here on my blog. This article answers the question, “How Do I Get Started?”

Danners - Oklahoma

The late Dr. John Henrik Clarke so eloquently stated, “History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.”

The words of this great historian, scholar, and educator highlight why many people, especially the descendants of enslaved Africans who were disembarked on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, should research their family histories. Genealogy is life-changing; its effects have many psychological benefits. Knowledge of self is gained by unearthing and studying the ancestors of the past. Discovering how the ancestors contributed to the larger historical picture builds self-esteem and confidence. Additionally for African Americans, genealogy elevates our curiosity level and inspires us to read and learn more facts about our African-American history that have been omitted, distorted, or scantly told in many history books.

But how do we get started? That’s a question that I now hear often. Television shows like Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ PBS series, “Finding Your Roots,” and TLC’s series, “Who Do You Think You Are,” have heightened many people’s interest in digging up their own roots.  However, these shows and others typically present the mouth-dropping findings from genealogy research, which causes many people to ask, “How did they find that out?” Therefore, the purpose of this article is to answer those questions. These steps are how many people can get started in unearthing their families’ past, going back to the Civil War era.


First, start building your family tree based on the information you know and the information you can garner from family members.  Blank family pedigree charts or family trees can be obtained from the Internet. Interview the older generations first. Record the names, dates, and places where your ancestors lived. Note any famous family stories. A beginner may be able to go back several generations in his family tree just from interviewing or conversing with parents, grandparents, aunts, great-aunts, great-uncles, cousins, and other relatives or even elder friends of the family. Some people may encounter family members who do not like to discuss the past. They will say, “Honey, let sleeping dogs lie.” Don’t worry. Hopefully, other family members may be willing to recall the past. Filling out your family tree or pedigree chart helps you to decide which family lines you want to research first.

Never rely on your mind to retain the information being relayed to you. At the very least, be equipped with a notebook and pencil. Advances in technology have allowed even our smart phones to be great recording devices. The key is to record the family information as it is being told. Therefore, choose the recording device that works best for you. Also, you can find numerous Internet articles about effective interviewing techniques. But one technique that has always generated great results for me is to just relax and generate conversations about the family elder’s young days rather than continually asking specific questions, like a news reporter. Allow the elders to talk, if they are willing, and sit back and listen, patiently. Pepper the conversation with great questions to get as much information as possible in a relaxed setting. Also, develop a rapport with older family members so that you will be able to reach out to them more as you travel on your genealogical journey. Keep in touch with them. Send them birthday cards or holiday greetings. As they become more comfortable with you, they will share more about the past. This is important because as you begin to research your family roots in the records, more questions will surface.


Invaluable records could be right there, either in your house, your parents’ house, or in the possession of a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or cousin. You may stumble on a historical treasure trove by scavenging in basements, closets, dresser drawers, attics, trunks, file cabinets, and other places where old important papers are kept.  These records may contain genealogical information that will aid in your research.  These records include but are not limited to birth records, obituaries, newspaper clippings, wills, legal papers, old family papers that consist of divorce records, insurance papers, membership cards, military discharge papers, property deeds, and any documents with names and dates, as well as a family Bible, photographs, old photograph albums, school yearbooks, old church programs, old scrapbooks, etc. Old family obituaries are especially helpful because they provide names of deceased and living family members and the names of cemeteries where family members are buried. Your genealogical journey should also include a visit to those family cemeteries to gather names and data from tombstones.

Davis, John & Emma


Census records are the most valuable resource and the nation’s largest record set for genealogy research. A federal census of the nation’s population was authorized and taken every ten years, from 1790 to the present day.  The plethora of data recorded in the census records allow researchers to capture a unique snapshot of their ancestors’ lives and the communities where they dwelled. This valuable data include but are not limited to the following: the heads of households, the people in the households and the relationship to the heads of households, the sex, race, age, and marital status of everyone, the number of years married, the age when first married, the place of birth, the father and mother’s places of birth, occupation, etc. The recorded information varies per census. However, for African-American research, one must rely on the censuses taken after 1860, unless your ancestors were free people of color. The names of all free people of color were included in the 1850 and 1860 census.

Armed with names, dates, and places, head to the place that houses census records. Advances in technology within recent years have allowed people to access census online from sites like,,, and others. The most popular site,, requires a fee-based subscription. However, many main city libraries allow library card-holding patrons to access and others for free. Census records are also available on microfilms at the National Archives, state archives departments, large public libraries, some major university libraries, and family history centers.

The 1950 U.S. Federal Census is the latest census that was made available to the public. (Note: The 1950 Census was released on April 1, 2022. See more details here.) Work from the known to the unknown by starting with the 1950 census and continue to the 1940, 1930, 1920, 1910, 1900, 1880, and the 1870 census. If your ancestors were free people of color, continue researching the 1850 and 1860 censuses. Unfortunately, an enormous 99 percent of the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire at the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C. in 1921.

The 1870 U.S. Federal Census is very important in African-American genealogy research. It was very often the first official record that recorded former enslaved African Americans by their first and last names. This census is also crucial because it was taken just five years after slavery. Therefore, most African-American adults in the 1870 census had been enslaved just five years prior.

Many African Americans on the same 1870 census pages had likely lived together earlier as a family group on their former enslavers’ farms and plantations. As late as 1870 and further, they continued to depend upon these relationships, even though some people were not blood-related. In 1870, you may often run across other families in the area with the same last names as your ancestors. Some of them may have been blood relatives, and some were not. Elder family members may be able to determine which families were blood-related.

When researching census records, here are some key things to remember:

(1)   A lot of county boundaries changed. Researchers may often find their ancestors residing in one county for one census year and in another county the following census year, but their ancestors never moved.

(2)   When you find your family in the censuses, study that page and several pages before and after. Pay attention to their neighbors. Family members often lived close to each other. Mimicking an African village, rural African-American communities were often filled with relatives or networks of extended kin. Ask older family members about the names of the other families living near your ancestors. They may be able to identify them.

(3)   You will find many discrepancies with names, ages, birthplaces, marital statuses, etc. That is common. Many people, especially former slaves, did not know their exact birth dates. Also, if a family was absent when the census-taker visited, he often retrieved information on that family from neighbors. The neighbors likely guessed the information.

(4)   Chances are high that your family surnames may be spelled differently in the censuses. Do not disregard people in the censuses because their surnames are spelled another way. Consider all possible spelling variants of your names.

(5)   Be cognizant of the nicknames for official names. Many people were recorded in the censuses under a nickname. If you cannot locate an ancestor under his real name, try to search for him under a nickname. Many genealogical websites have lists of nicknames and official names. Some common nickname/official name variations include Lizzie/Liza/Eliza/Betty for Elizabeth, Mollie/Polly/Mae for Mary, Jack for John, Bill for William, Hank/Hence for Henry, Peggy/Maggie for Margaret, Mattie/Pattie/Patsy for Martha, Bob for Robert, Sally for Sarah, and many more.

(6)   If you find people reported as “M” or “Mu” in the censuses, which is an abbreviation for “mulatto,” do not assume that one of their parents was White or Native American.  A lot of census-takers wrote “M” or “Mu” for a person’s race/color if that person appeared to be of mixed ancestry.  Many of them likely did not inquire about the race of the parents but made assumptions based on appearances.  Older family members may be able to verify a person’s parentage.

Kennedy, Albert & Martha


Fortunately, for African-American genealogy research, the list of other valuable resources is lengthy. I will cover some of the main records researchers should seek in their genealogical quests. These main resources include marriage records, death certificates, birth certificates, land records, military service records, newspapers, published sources, draft registration cards, court records, church records, school records, Social Security Death Index and Social Security Application form SS-5, city directories, state censuses, and many more.

Maiden names can be learned from marriage records.  Marriage license applications can be found for some counties. The applications often give the parents’ names. Marriage records can be obtained from county courthouses and state archive departments.  Marriage dates may be found online on sites like or On the actual marriage documents, pay attention to the names of witnesses or bondsmen; they were often family members.

Death certificates are valuable because they contain information such as the name of the spouse, the father’s name, the mother’s maiden name, the birthplace, the birth date, the place of burial, etc. Birth certificates give the parents’ names and the place of birth.  Those records are typically found at state vital records departments and at state archive departments. and have increased their databases to include scanned death certificate for various states, including Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, and more.

In 1863, the United States Army began to enlist free and enslaved African-American men into regimental units known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Nearly 186,000 African Americans served in the USCT volunteer cavalry, artillery, and infantry units during the Civil War. If you have knowledge that an ancestor or relative may have fought in the Civil War, request copies of his pension record; they are stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  The USCT service records are indexed there. The pension records of many of these brave soldiers often contain a wealth of information. If a personal visit to the National Archives is not possible, you can order pension records online via the National Archives’ website.  NATF-80 applications are used to submit an order for a soldier’s record; these applications are also now online on their website. Not all soldiers have pension records.

Once you are able to uncover names of more ancestors and family members from these vital records, plan to search for them in the census records as well. Additionally, don’t just focus on your direct ancestors. Trace collateral lines or your ancestors’ siblings. You may be able to trace back another generation by doing so, especially if you discover a parent living with an ancestor’s sibling. Also, plan a research trip to your state Archives to research more records that are specific to that state and are not online. Genealogy requires a lot of time, money, and patience, but the rewards are great and life-changing, not only for you but for members of your family. There are many stories to be told and experiences to resurrect.

2 thoughts on “African American Genealogy: Unearthing Your Family’s Past, From the Present to the Civil War

    1. Jorgina Parks

      I completed the African Ancestry DNA test and the Ancestry. Com DNA test.

      African Ancestry= Tikar People Benin, Togo, Nigeria and others.

      Traveling to Africa is on my bucket list. If the trip can pay homage, I can connect the dots and missing links.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s