Black History Month was established in the US in 1926.
For many black families with roots in the Southern states, genealogy research can be frustrating. Although African American genealogy research can get back to the 1880s. It is difficult for most to follow a trail back to an earlier time.
Every day more resources are available online. If you cannot find what you are looking for today, check again tomorrow or next week.
Southern records do exist, although prior to Emancipation, records of birth, marriages and deaths are rare. Slave owners didn't usually keep these records. Records for free blacks also exist. Some researchers have been successful in finding useful records of sale, land, personal property and the wills of white owners.
In 1867, blacks were required to adopt last names, although some slaves adopted family names earlier. Some took the names of their owners, but there were no restrictions on what names could be adopted.
Like most ethnic groups in the US, names were not exactly permanent. Spellings would change and the names themselves might change several times before settling into a more permanent form.
After being freed, black families were usually too poor to have land or personal property, and many remained as sharecroppers on the plantations of their former owners. Thus, there are few land or estate records with which to trace them. The poorer the families, the fewer the records.
It is hard for most blacks to use a paper trail to trace their ancestry to a specific part of Africa. Slaves came from all parts of Africa, but those of different tribes were mixed together when shipped from various ports. DNA research is being conducted by Henry Louis Gates to trace African origins to a specific area. Some researchers have found that their DNA tests returned European genetic markers.
For more on DNA testing for African Americans, read the articles here
Use MyHeritage Smart Research to access indexes for many free and subscription sites - all at one click. However, you will need to have a subscription to see the document images. Be aware that many US public libraries offer free access to paid subscription services, so check your public library/
On Ancestry.com, begin at African American History, and find information on these databases:
1870 U.S. Federal Census (Population Schedule): The first census listing former slaves by name and age.
Colored Troops Military Service Records (1861-1865)
Freedmen’s Marriage Records (1861-1869)
Freedman's Bank Records:Nearly 180,000 names of depositors of Freedman's Savings and Trust, which served thousands of African-American former slaves (1865-1874) throughout the Southern States.
Freedmen Bureau Records of Field Offices (1865-1872): covering District of Columbia, Georgia, North Carolina, New Orleans, Florida, Virginia and Tennessee.
Slave Registers of Former British Colonial Dependencies (1812-1834)
Southern Claims Master Index (1871-1880)
Southern Claims Commission Allowed Claims (1871-1880)
Southern Claims Commission Disallowed and Barred Claims (1871-1880)
On Footnote.com, find
Southern Claims Commission Records: Some 20,000 compensation claim petitions for damage, crops, livestock and other assets seized by Union troops during the Civil War. Many records record the testimony of African American witnesses.
For more information, see this previous January 2008 post at the MyHeritage Genealogy Blog
Black History Month is celebrated in February.
For African Americans, researching their family tree has been almost impossible, as they come from a history in which their names were literally erased. Slaves had African given names replaced by more recognizable names and their surnames became those of their owners.
Recently, with the advent of new databases and technological tools, this research can be easier. Among new resources is the ability to compare censuses that document free black Americans in Southern states. Additionally, a growing number of individuals are preparing their family stories and discovering images of their unique history.
In honor of Black History Month, here are some resources to consider.
Two individuals who have made major contributions are Paul Heinegg, who has now placed on the Internet his years of work on free African Americans of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, and Tom Blake, who has identified the largest slaveholders on the 1860 census, and matched these surnames in the 1870 Census to African American households.
In addition to the sites below, the second series of African American Lives 2 will screen on PBS stations in the US during February. The companion website will provide resources, information on the research, and an area where visitors may upload and tag their own unique stories. Lesson plans and classroom activities are useful for teachers.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is again the host, as he guides genealogical research through the 20th century, Reconstruction, slavery and early US history, along with advanced genetic analysis to locate the participants' ancestors in Africa, Europe and America.
Now for the sites:
Named one of Family Tree Magazine's 101 best genealogy sites - for the eighth year in a row - is Afrigeneas. It is devoted to African American genealogy: to researching African ancestry in the Americas and to genealogical research and resources. Other features include a discussion group, message boards and chats, an online interactive beginner's guide, census records, death records database, library records, photos, slave data collection and surnames databases. A family reunion primer offers many links, and an education section with activities and resources. Its forums cover African-Native American, Caribbean, DNA, reunions, genealogy and history, books and more.
This is the newest tool to assist African Americans in their quest for information.
AfricanDNA.com is the first company to offer both genetic testing and genealogical tracing services for African Americans. Launched in November 2007, it is a partnership of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Inkwell Foundation and Family Tree DNA, the world's pioneer and leader in genetic genealogy. It is the only genetic genealogy company to provide African Americans with family tree research in addition to DNA testing.
The Washington Post recently launched TheRoot.com, an online magazine for African-Americans, with a genealogy component as well as covering current events and culture.
It offers a beginners' guide, a video about ethnic DNA testing and book recommendations, along with video clips from the new season of African-American Lives 2. There are Mapping and Family Tree links to a free family tree builder (but visitors must register to use it). The DNA link is to Gates' AfricanDNA, a partnership with FamilyTreeDNA, which will be the first to offer both DNA testing and genealogy research.
The editor is Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates who became a household name after helping Mae Jemison, Oprah Winfrey and other famous African-Americans find their roots in PBS' 2006 series African-American Lives.
The Project is an all-volunteer research project and website sponsored by the Africana Studies department at the University of South Florida. Its focus is to re-discover records documenting the names and lives of slaves, freed persons and their descendants, and share - for free - those records online. It is collaborating on Afriquest.com - a free online database - to which individuals may contribute records and materials.
Additionally, the non-profit Magnolia Plantation Foundation will fund a sister website called Lowcountry Africana, to launch in March 2008, and dedicated to the documents and cultural heritage of African Americans in South Carolina's historic rice-growing areas.
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands - the Freedman's Bureau - was founded by the War Department on March 3, 1865 to supervise relief and educational activities relating to refugees and newly freed slaves, and including issuing rations, clothing and medicine. There are many reports and documents online, including labor records, early marriage records and more. The goal is to use innovative imaging and indexing technologies to make the records easily accessible to the public, including historians, genealogists, novice genealogy enthusiasts, and students.
For many years, Tom Blake has been identifying the largest slaveholders on the 1860 US census, and matching surnames to African American households in the 1870 census, the first to enumerate former slaves by name. According to his estimate, large slaveholders held 20-30% of the total number of slaves in the US in 1860.
Paul Heinegg shares his books on free African Americans online, from his books: Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina and Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware. Some older records are updated. There are some 2,000 pages of family histories based on colonial court order and minute books, free Negro registers, marriage bonds, census records, etc. A further 2,000 pages are listed under Colonial Tax lists.
The collection offers photographs, sound recordings, sheet music, maps and documents relating to African American history and culture.
Read about the history of Black Americans in the Civil War. It is estimated that some 10% of the Union troops were African American soldiers. The free database holds information on soldiers, regiments, battles, civil war parks and more.
A University of Virginia project numbers more than 2,300 interviews and photos of former slaves (1936-38). The online database of slave narratives includes some of those interviews and photos.
Volunteers submit cemetery transcriptions, and visitors can search by surname or state to find people buried in US African American cemeteries.
The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture is fascinating and presents information on the major waves of African American migrations (Transatlantic Slave Trade, Runaway Journeys, the Domestic Slave Trade, Colonization and Emigration, Haitian Immigration, Caribbean Migration, African Migration and African American migration within the United States. Find an interesting timeline and very interesting photographs.
Good luck in your quest! I look forward to reading your questions and comments.