Anyone who has spent time doing family history research knows the many challenges involved in building a family tree with complete and accurate information – but researching African American ancestors can present its own unique set of complications.
In this guide to African American genealogy research, we will talk about how to get started researching your African American ancestors, discuss common challenges and potential strategies for avoiding them, and highlight the best resources to help you begin to uncover your family’s roots. This guide also includes many resources for researching Black persons in general, not just those individuals of African descent.
NOTE: If you haven’t already, now would be a great time to start a family tree to help you record names, vital statistics, and relationships. For help deciding on the best family tree program for you, see our detailed breakdown of the top 6 choices here.
Getting Started Researching Your African American Ancestors
The simplest place to start your research might be with your own family. FamilySearch’s very detailed and useful Finding Records of Your Ancestors, Part A—African American 1870 to Present and their quick guide Beginning African American Research points out that you may have more information available to you than you realize via family members or documents stashed away in an attic or basement.
Begin by interviewing older relatives, scouring any old family documents, and remember, do not limit your search to only direct line relatives: include aunts, uncles, and cousins because the more details you have about your family the more material will have to work with when you are searching for your ancestors! Record as many details as possible from these inquiries; look here for helpful tips on collecting information at family gatherings. This oral history questionnaire might also be useful in collecting your family’s details.
From here you may want to follow the four steps that are laid out in the Finding Records of Your Ancestors, Part A -African American 1870 to Present. To begin these steps, you’ll need to focus on a specific ancestor whose date of death is sometime after 1870. The steps walk you through locating specific information about your ancestors using recommended documents and suggested sources. The guide offers suggestions for locating records. Look here for additional information on free genealogy resources to help you locate these documents.
Once you have followed FamilySearch’s steps and gathered more information about your family you will need to begin getting more creative with your research strategies to yield further information. The next section discusses the “1870 Brick wall” that is often encountered in African American genealogy research. After reading through the following section, review the resources detailed in this article as you work your way backward in an effort to identify your ancestors prior to 1870.
Overcoming the “1870 Brick Wall”
Researching your African American ancestors can be more difficult than other family research due to the complex history of enslavement, oppression, and marginalization of people of African descent in the United States.
After emancipation most African American persons were included in general records such as census records, vital records, school records, voter registration and so on. But it can be very difficult to find African American ancestors prior to 1870 and this challenge is sometimes referred to as the “1870 Brick Wall.”
You will need to employ different research methods for locating your ancestors before this time, as well as different strategies depending on the time-period before 1870 that you are researching. If your ancestors were slaves, the crucial piece of information to locate is the name of your ancestor’s last slaveholder. This will allow you to conduct research on the slaveholder’s family, which can help you uncover clues about your ancestors and trace your ancestral line back through the slavery period.
Reconstruction Era between 1865-1870: Freedmen’s Bureau Records offers one of the largest sources of information for this period. Other sources of information can be found in various military records, 1867 Voter Registration Lists, and possibly 1870 census records. The 1870 Census would be the first that records African American persons by name. See the resources section below for detailed entries on these sources.
Before 1865: This will be the most challenging period for research. Expert researchers Kenyatta D. Berry from PBS’s Genealogy Roadshow and Meaghan E. H. Siekman of the New England Historic and Genealogical Society both provide helpful information to get you started.
It is important at this point to learn if your ancestors were enslaved or free persons prior to emancipation. If you don’t know, you can begin by searching the 1860 census for your ancestors. Because enslaved persons were not listed by name, if you find them you know they were likely free persons. For more information on researching free persons during the slavery period see “Free and Enslaved African Americans and Slaveholders Prior to Reconstruction Era” below.
If you are unable to locate your ancestors’ names in the 1860 census they were likely enslaved during this period. If you already know the name of the slaveholding family you might first search the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules using their names. Each slaveholder was listed by name along with physical descriptions and age of enslaved persons along with a few other details depending on which year you are searching. This will allow you to confirm the last slaveholder and give you further details about other enslaved persons held by same slaveholder.
You may also want to examine entries for nearby slaveholders for details on enslaved persons that might help you connect family relationships. For more information on Slave Schedules see “United States Census Records and U.S. Census Slave Schedules” below.
If you do not know the name of your ancestor’s last slaveholder, search the 1860 census for white persons in the same county with the same surname. Then search the 1860 slave schedule for these names. If you find the same person in the slave schedule, examine descriptions of the enslaved persons listed that match the description of your ancestor.
For example, if you find a slaveholder with the same surname living in the same area as your ancestor, who listed a slave that is the same age and gender as your ancestor at that time, it may be worth digging further into the slaveholder’s genealogical records to confirm this is who you are looking for and to see if you can find further information about your ancestor and family members.
If the surname is very common, or you were not successful with the methods above (your ancestor might not share a surname with the last slaveholder), try instead searching the Freedmen Bureau’s records for labor contracts under your ancestor’s name. Information on Freedmen’s Bureau Records can be found below.
With the assistance of the Freedman’s Bureau, former slaves sometimes entered into work agreements with the former slaveholder. Search the slave schedules for the name of the person that your ancestor entered into a contract with to see if you can find a matching slaveholder name that lists a slave that matches your ancestor’s description. With this confirmation, you can then begin searching the genealogical records of the slaveholder and his family for further clues about your ancestors.
If you are able to locate the last slaveholder you will be able to work backward to continue to research your ancestor’s line through dual line research. Use the myriad of online and offline resources to research the personal papers, land, probate, and account records of the slaveholders. Beyond the available online resources, also consult state archives and genealogical societies. Lists of state archives can be found here and here. Also check ArchiveGrid, which details locations for over 5 million archival documents in collections around the world. See our breakdown on how to use ArchiveGrid here.
A few notable dates to use for reference:
- First African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619.
- In 1808 Congress banned the importation of African slaves.
- Slavery is banned north of the southern Missouri boundary in 1820.
- Civil War began in 1861 when 7 states secede and create the Confederate States of America.
- The Confiscation Act of 1862 granted freedom to slaves held by persons in rebellion against the United States.
- President Lincoln issued emancipation proclamation in 1863.
- Slavery ended in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th amendment. The Freedmen’s Bureau is established.
- In 1867 the 14th Amendment is ratified granting citizenship to all those born or naturalized in the U.S.
- In 1870 the 15th Amendment grants African American men the right to vote.
Some important facts to keep in mind:
- There were approximately 4 million enslaved at the start of the Civil War.
- Roughly 198,000 African Americans served in the Military during the Civil War.
- Husbands, wives and other family members were not always enslaved at the same location.
- Often slaves had more than one slaveholder over the course of their enslavement.
- Many enslaved persons did not share the surname of the slaveholder.
- Enslaves persons came to slaveholders through multiple avenues such as estate sales, sheriff sales, inheritance, public auctions, independent sellers, and “slave markets.”
Resources For Tracing Your African American Ancestry
Getting started can be daunting, use the resources below to further familiarize yourself with researching African American ancestors and find records for your research. As noted, many general record resources also apply to research of African American ancestors. These websites are a good place to begin: National Archives and Records Administration; FamilySearch; The U.S. GenWeb Project; and 50 Free Genealogy Sites.
More information on searching state and local records can be found in Family Search’s United States Genealogy Wiki page. Begin with the state you are searching in and follow the links to the record type of interest; these individual pages will list what resources exist for the record type for that state and where to find them. You can search many of these records for free online – we have a list of free U.S. resources by state here.
However, while there are many sources available online, it is important to know that many primary documents are not available for digital viewing (but may still be located using the internet). This may be especially true for African American researchers. Do not let this deter you from using the internet.
Keep in mind OCLC WorldCat for locating both print and digital material. It is an online database that will allow you to locate a copy of the source either online or at a nearby library. As mentioned, also consider ArchiveGrid for locating primary sources. Don’t be afraid to take the plunge into offline research. State archives are an excellent source; lists of archives can be found here and here. For more information on offline research, check out The Vast Majority of Genealogy Records Still Can’t Be Found Online: Here’s How to Locate Them.
Education, Introductions, and Starting Places for African American Research
There is a wealth of information online, some already linked within this article, that will help introduce you to genealogy research. There are also many solid resources available online that are specific to researching African American ancestors:
FamilySearch Research Wiki: African American Genealogy: This webpage is a goldmine of information, resources, and links for anything related to African American genealogy. To get you started, check out the guide for research, the online genealogy records, the quick guide to records, and view the main page linked above for individual state pages for African American genealogy.
NARA African American Research: This page is the starting place for any resources available through NARA. Their catalog is available here.
African American Genealogy: This section of American Ancestors from the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) also provides a wealth of knowledge. View the webinar “African American Resources” at NEHGS for an overview of African American research geared toward those utilizing NEHGS resources. Some of the topics include reconstruction era documents, census records, manumission documents, free African Americans, and multiple topics related to African American connections to other ethnicities. The broadcast is also offered in text format and provides multiple recommendations and suggestions for resources. You might also be able to find some of the book suggestions in other databases such as WorldCat. You can join as a guest to gain access to a selection of the databases for free.
Overview of African American Research: This page is provided within the Ancestry.com wiki and is part of a 10 part series on African American Genealogy originally published as “African American Research” by Tony Burroughs, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. See the overview page for all articles in the series, which include topics such as census records, military records, researching free African Americans, researching slavery, Freedmen’s Bureau records, other useful resources, and compiled sources in African American Research.
Finding Records of Your Ancestors, Part A—African American 1870 to Present: This offers a step by step guide to locating your ancestors after 1870.
Finding the Slave Generation: This is a PowerPoint handout by Angela McComas (available through FamilySearch) that offers suggestions for researching beyond the “1870 brick wall.”
African American Genealogy: An Interactive Guide for Beginners: This interactive guide offers introductory information for beginning your research.
University of South Florida’s Africana Heritage Project: This project offers access to a multitude of records through their database as well as other resources such as a digital reading room and digital research library. The site is being rebuilt but can still be accessed in the previous format.
African American Genealogy 101: This is a PowerPoint presentation written by the founder of Our Black Ancestry (OBA) and AfriGeneas, Sharon Leslie Morgan. Also, see this short tutorial for beginning your research available on the OBA website and this detail-rich Black History Timeline.
Afrigeneas—African Ancestored Genealogy: This website offers collections on census records, death records, marriage records, photos (old and current), slave data, and surname database. It also offers a library records page with links to research guides, articles and papers, and documents and records by state. There are also pages dedicated to state and world resources as well as forums.
Research Library, Low Country Africana: The digital library on this website offers a beginning research guide, a research method guide, and a variety of other useful sources for locating relevant records for your ancestors in SC, GA, and northeastern FL.
In addition to these online resources, there are also many print resources that have been suggested by FamilySearch, NEHGS, and other genealogical organizations. Again, keep in mind WorldCat for locations of these materials in your area. Use the “View All Formats” function on the entry page to see what formats are available (online, microfilm, print etc). Try the following to get you started:
- Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African American Genealogy and Historical Identity
- Black Roots: A beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree
- African American Genealogy: A Bibliography and Guide to Sources
Free and Enslaved African Americans and Slaveholders Prior to Reconstruction Era
As discussed in previous sections, ancestral research during the period of slavery is challenging. The resources listed below offer resources related to enslaved persons, slaveholders as well as free persons of African descent during this time.
The Digital Library on American Slavery (DLAS) at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) brings together sources from multiple projects and databases into one searchable interface. This is an extensive database that will give you access to thousands of documents about slaveholders, enslaved persons and “free persons of color.”
For example, The Race and Slavery Petitions Project contains detailed information about 150,000 people originating from legislative petitions, county court petitions, wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, disposition, court proceedings, and more.
The North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project makes over 2300 runaway slave ads from the years 1751 to 1840 in NC accessible digitally. Also check out the Last Seen project, a separate collection covering more areas.
People Not Property – Slave Deeds of North Carolina indexes the name of enslaved person in NC from bills of sales. This project is still in the works.
The Slavery Era Insurance Registries made available by the California Department of Insurance provides access to 670 records related to policies that insured slaveholders against the loss of those they enslaved.
Also available through DLAS is information for nearly 35,000 slave trade voyages including 86,689 slave names and 34,551 captain names from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.
More information on these and other included projects can be found here.
Unknown No Longer from Virginia Historical Society is a database of names of enslaved persons sourced from their unpublished collection of over 8 million manuscripts. Details available on individuals in the database could include only a name but might also include additional details such as family relationships, occupations, and important dates. You can search by first and last name, occupation, or gender. You can also browse by records type (i.e. deed of emancipation, court records, dairy, insurance policy newspaper clipping, records book, etc.) or location via a live map. This remains a work in progress.
Slave Biographies: The Atlantic Database Network: This database is an open access data repository of the identities of enslaved persons in the Atlantic world including Maranhao, Brazil; colonial Louisiana; and freed slaves in antebellum Louisiana. Entries include names, ethnicities, skills, occupations, and known illnesses of the individuals. There are roughly 116,000 records available that can be searched by data set, name, race, date, and gender. This is phase one of an ongoing project.
Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware is “The history of the free African American community as told through the family history of most African Americans who were free in the Southeast during the colonial period.” This website was written and compiled by Paul Heinegg from court records, tax lists, wills, deeds, “free negro” registries, marriage bonds, parish registers, Revolutionary War pension files, colonial tax lists, and personal property tax lists sourced from the archives of the concerned states. The five collections available on the website are the contents of two publications by Paul Heinegg along with other relevant records from this same period.
Lowcountry Africana: This resource-rich website focuses on records documenting the families and culture of African Americans in the rice-growing areas of SC, GA, and northeastern FL. They offer links to over 150 online genealogies of SC slaveholders.
The Freedmen’s Bureau Records
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedman’s Bureau, was established in the United States War Department in 1865 to facilitate the transition of freed slaves and war refugees as well to manage abandoned/confiscated land in the post-civil war reconstruction era.
The Freedman’s Bureau operated until 1872, and the documents it produced offer priceless genealogical information that many African American family researchers considered lost or out of reach. Through the Freedmen’s Bureau Preservation Project the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilmed a vast number of these images, which are available for viewing at their main facility in Washington D.C. or regional facilities. For more information on Freedmen’s Bureau records at NARA consult African American Records: Freedmen’s Bureau and NARA’s 2010 publication Black Family Research.
In June of 2015, the Freedman’s Bureau Project was established as a partnership between FamilySearch, NARA, the Smithsonian Nation Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African American Museum.
With the help of thousands of volunteers, the project indexed these documents in a year’s time, thus making the names of 1.8 million people searchable through the FamilySearch databases. The Freedmen’s Bureau records contain multiple collections and searching can be done by name through the search function at Freedmen’s Bureau Project or at FamilySearch by name, event, relationship, location or collection.
You may also want to check out FamilySearch’s Wiki page African American Freedmen’s Bureau Records, which provides additional information and resources related to Freedmen’s Bureau Records and a list of all Freedmen’s Bureau databases. For your convenience, all Freedmen’s Bureau related collections are linked here:
- Freedman’s Bank Records
- Freedmen’s Branch Records
- Freedmen’s Bureau Claim Records
- Labor Contracts Indenture and Apprenticeship Records
- Records of Freedmen
- Records of Freedmen’s Complaints
- Freedmen’s Court Records
- Records of the Superintendent of Education and of the Division of Education
- Hospital and Medical Records
- Records of Persons and Articles Hired
- Ration Records
- Records of the Commissioner
- Records of the Assistant Commissioner
Field offices and state specific records:
- District of Columbia
- Maryland and Delaware
- Mississippi (Pre-Bureau Records)
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
Voter Registration Lists of 1867
The Voter Registration lists that resulted from an 1867 Congressional Act requiring all males 21 years and older to register to vote might also be a useful resource for finding male ancestors during this period. The following types of information might be available in these lists: name, place of residence, length of residence, precinct, state or county of birth, naturalization status, additional comments that often included an individual’s race.
Not every state’s 1867 voter lists exist. If they have not been lost, they can usually only be found through state archives. To find out what is available for your state of interest, consult the state archive for that state. Lists of archives can be found here and here.
FamilySearch does have some 1867 Voter lists available on microfilm. Some of these have been digitized and can be viewed through a FamilySearch center. Read more about that here. Find what they have available here or use their catalog to search keyword “1867 Voter Registration.” You can also use the “View this catalog record in WorldCat for other possible copy locations” function on the entry’s page to find locations in your area that the material is available.
There are limited voter registration lists available digitally. Ancestry.com has the Texas Voter Registration—1967 available to search for free, but to view all details and original documents you must be a paid member. (Check with your local library to see if they provide access to Ancestry at no cost). The Alabama 1867 Voter Registration Records are available digitally at no charge through the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
United States Census Records and U.S. Census Slave Schedules
U.S. Census Records will be useful for searching for ancestors after 1870. These records are available for free online through FamilySearch. For a detailed year by year look at what is available and how to access them check out our Ultimate Quick Reference Guide for the U.S. Census for Genealogy.
The FamilySearch Wiki page on the U.S. Census also offers a wealth of information. If your ancestor was freed from slavery prior to 1870, you may also be able to search him or her by name. See “Overcoming the ‘1870 Brick wall’” above for more about using the U.S. Census records in your research. Census years prior 1850 only listed head of household by name and the number of persons in the home. There was a column for the number of “free colored persons” in each household. In 1850 and 1860 all free persons were listed by name.
As discussed, researching African American ancestors prior to 1870 is more difficult using census records because enslaved persons were not recorded by name. The U.S. Census included slave schedules for 1850 and 1860. The 1850 Slave Schedule is available digitally for free through FamilySearch. The 1860 Slave Schedule is available digitally to search for free through Ancestry.com, but in order to view the original document and additional details, you must be a paid member.
The 1850 schedule includes the slaveholder’s name along with the age, sex, and “color” of each enslaved person. It also recorded the number of “fugitive” slaves and “manumitted” slaves. The 1860 schedule was similar with an added column for the total number of slaves classified as “deaf & dumb, blind, insane or idiotic.”
Union Civil War Service Records for African American Troops
During the Civil War about 179,000 African American men served in the military for the Union in the United States Colored Troops (USCT). NARA has compiled military records for these troops and many are available to view on microfilm at the main facility in Washington D.C. or one of the regional facilities. Fortunately, many of these documents have been indexed and made available digitally through FamilySearch in conjunction with Fold3 free of charge. You are likely to find such information as: soldier’s full name, year enlisted, age (could be estimated), military unit, types of records in the file, and NARA identification information.
Documents in the file range from muster rolls, enlistment documents, and payroll information to documents specific to solider such as correspondence, manumission documents, death reports and more. To view actual documents follow the link on the entry page “visit partner site,” which will take you straight to the available images for this entry. The first time you do this you will need to register – however, the images are available free of charge as long as you see the “free document” label. Check out the FamilySearch Wiki page for the Civil War Service Records of Union Colored Troops collection for further resources and information.
African American Sailors in the Civil War Period
As a part of the larger Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System project, the National Park Service (NPS) in conjunction with Howard University identified roughly 18,000 African Americans by name who served for the Union Navy during the Civil War and compiled the information into a database available through the NPS website.
The database can be searched by first name, last name, ship name, birth city, birth county, and birth state. Each entry provides rows for the following information: sailor’s name; place of birth; age; complexion; occupation; height; date, place, and term of enlistment; rating; and detailed muster records (including vessel name). Please note that not every entry will contain all possible information.
For more information on African Americans in the Navy during the Civil War period check out Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War by Joseph P. Reidy in NARA’s Prologue Magazine.
Revolutionary War Records
The document entitled List of Black Servicemen Compiled From the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records was published by NARA in 1974 and is available digitally through the HathiTrust Digital Library. The document compiles data from several sources from War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records at NARA. Sources include the individual name index to the compiled military service records, the numbered record books, and the special index.
The document is divided by source of information and the lists within each section are divided by state where applicable and are alphabetized. For more information on how individuals were identified to be of African descent, as well as an explanation on name listed, see the introduction on pages 1 and 2. For more information on contents see the summary below:
List of Black Servicemen from the Individual Name Index to the Compiled Military Service Record: The following information is available for each person listed: Name, regiment, and rank. Roll and card number are also listed. The following states are available – Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. There are also lists for Continental, Corps of Invalids, and the Navy.
List of Black Servicemen Compiled from the Numbered Record Books: The following information is available for each person listed: Name, regiment, company, and rank. Page number within the volume in also listed. The following volumes are available – Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.
List of Black Servicemen Compiled from the Special Index: The following information is available for each person listed: name and organization/rank/position. Also listed in the manuscript number, volume, and page number.
Another document entitled List of Free African Americans in the Revolution: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware (followed by French and Indian Wars and colonial militias), compiled by Paul Heinegg, details many of the approximately 900 people of African descent that were born free and their descendants that served during the Revolutionary War. The entries are alphabetized and appear to be short genealogical histories that include sources.
For general information on African Americans who served during the Revolutionary Period see the following articles:
Other Military Records
The document Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, compiled by Paul Heinegg, details the approximately 75 free African Americans who served in colonial militias and the French and Indian Wars in Virginia, North and South Carolina. Each entry is a genealogical history of the stated family that include cited sources.
Oral history, while not mainstream genealogy, is a key part of African American genealogy research. Check out FamilySearch’s wiki page on African American Oral History for further details about the benefits of oral history and additional resources for African American oral histories. See also the AAHGS oral history resource page. Below is information about collections available online:
Voices from the Days of Slavery: Available for free through the Library of Congress, this collection was compiled from all known interviews with former slaves available at the American Folklife Center. This totals 23 individuals born between the 1820s and the 1860s. The interviews took place between 1932 and 1975 in 9 southern states. The interviews total 7 hours.
First-Person Narratives of the American South: This collection is available through Documenting the American South and is sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This collection includes primary sources such as diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts, and former slave narratives written by African Americans, women, enlisted men, laborers, and Native Americans. The collection can be browsed by subject or alphabetically and is available digitally at no cost.
North American Slave Narratives: This collection is available through Documenting the American South and sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is a collection of autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves that document individual and collective experiences of African American between the 18th and early 20th centuries. The collection can be browsed by subject or alphabetically and includes a scholarly bibliography and a guide to religious content within the narratives. The collection is available digitally at no cost.
Continuing Your Research
Reviewing every possible source for African American records would be outside the scope and breadth of this article. However, we would be remiss to not at least point you in the direction of these resources. Some are not directly related to genealogy records but offer insight into the African American experience and history. Below you will find links to various other sources that might further assist you in your research:
- National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
- Online Reference Guide African American History, Blackpast.org
- Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society
- Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau
- Northwest African American Museum
- Nomini Hall Slave Legacy
- Our Black Ancestry
You might also like: 10 Free Resources for Researching Your African American Ancestors
Published Feb 26th, 2018
By Jessica Grimm, Family History Daily Associate Writer
Image middle: “Full-length portrait of an African American woman seated holding an African American infant” by A. D. Jaynes, Photographer, Corning, N. Y. between 1860 and 1870. Library of Congress