African-American Genealogy – Finding Your Roots

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Over thirty years have passed since Alex Haley’s Roots captured the imagination of the nation and helped fuel an explosion of interest in genealogical research. During the intervening years, thousands of individuals have begun the journey to discover their past. As they have added to their knowledge, the genealogy “industry” has grown exponentially in the richness of the resources available and with the technology that makes possible convenient access to those resources.

The media has recognized the widespread interest in genealogy in general, but African American genealogy in particular. Programs such as the PBS series “History Detectives” have showcased the opportunities to learn more about our ancestors and their experiences. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, hosted a series of television programs showcasing genealogical research, and especially the use of genetics in genealogy, in uncovering the roots of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock. His book, In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past (Crown, 2009) documents this research while profiling celebrities like May Angelou, Whoopi Goldberg, Tina Turner, and Quincy Jones. In 2010, “Who Do You Think You Are” caught the nation’s interest as it explored celebrity roots, including such African-American notables as Emmett Smith and Spike Lee. The 2011 season kicks off on Friday, 4 February, with Vanessa Williams.

Given the continually increasing wealth of resources available to researchers as well as the frequency with which new information is brought to our attention through the media, there is no better time than the present – and African-American History Month – to begin researching African-American roots.

The African-American research process begins like any other:

  • Gather together family documents, letters, photographs and memories. Organize them using standard genealogical practices and forms. Books such as Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2005) and George Morgan’s How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy (McGraw/Hill Osborne, 2004) will assist in this process.
  • As you organize your family archive, begin to verify the information in original sources such as births records, marriage licenses, death certificates, wills, deeds and military records. Books such as Elizabeth Petty Bentley’s County Courthouse Book (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009) and Christine Rose’s Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures (CR Publications, 2004) will help you locate specific records. You will also want to check online resources such as Family Search and
  • Document your findings. An excellent resource to assist you in accurate and thorough documentation is Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Quick Sheet: Citing Online African-American Historical Resources Evidence! Style* (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2010). In this guide, formatted to slip easily into your briefcase or computer case, Ms. Mills illustrates with citations from Afrigeneas:African Ancestored Genealogy, articles, blogs, books, the census, Freedmen’s Bureau Records, gravestones, military records, slave manifests, slave narratives, and files of the Southern Claims Commission. This title is essential for anyone conducting African-American research online.

After verifying information gathered from your family and documenting the names, dates and geographical locations you’ve discovered, your next step is to research individuals in each census beginning with the 1930 federal census and moving backward in time, generation by generation. This information is accessible online through a personal subscription to or by using or AncestryPlus available through many public libraries. Try to extend your research backward to the crucial 1870 census, the first census in which recently freed slaves were enumerated. Also check the census enumerations for 1860 and 1850, because if your ancestors were free blacks rather than slaves, you may be able to locate them in these earlier, relatively detailed censuses. (Be careful with indexing. I discovered several families in Princess Anne County, Virginia, who were indexed in the 1860 census as “Filipinos” instead of free blacks because the indexer misread the “fb” notation for “fl.” Only by locating the same families in the 1850 census, where they were enumerated as free blacks specifically, was I able to resolve the problem.)

In order to search for slaves prior to 1870, you will need to identify the slave owner and continue your research through the records pertaining to that individual.

  • Use the census slave schedules for the years 1850 and 1860 to identify possible slave owners in the area where you believe your ancestors may have been living prior to 1870. Please note that these slave schedules do not enumerate the names of slaves, but rather the names of the owners and the number of males or females of each age that they owned. The only slaves listed by name are those over the age of 100. I found, for example, that Joseph G. Barkley, of Nash County, North Carolina, owned a 100-year old slave named Annie.
  • Check all available county records for slave owners that you’ve identified. Wills often mentioned slaves by name as they were bequeathed to various heirs. These records may also disclose the rental of slaves for work on other plantations, the sale of slaves, or slave manumissions by enlightened plantation owners. I am currently working on a project in Stafford County, Virginia, records in which the parish registers, in recording slave births and deaths, link specific slaves with the name of their owners.
  • Check the local or state historical society or state archives to see if there are family papers available for any of the slave owners that you identified. You may also be able to find family papers listed in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (the topic of last week’s blog) and the Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations, a microfilm collection that includes manuscripts held in major research libraries throughout the South. Collections of family papers may include diaries the provide information on specific individuals, as many owners kept records of births and other significant events that affected their slaves. For example, a Martin family farm diary from Princess Anne County, Virginia, included so much information on slaves that a local historian was able to fashion a three-generation pedigree.

Here are some other collections that may prove useful in your research:

  • The end of the Civil War brought chaos throughout the South, in part due to the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of recently freed slaves. The U. S. Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Bureau) to manage the issue. The bureau’s work included everything from providing food, clothing and medical care, to the establishment of schools, the legalization of marriages, and the establishment of banking services for African American soldiers and sailors and their heirs. In total, the extant records of the Freedman’s Bureau include more than 600,000 items for the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Large research libraries as well as state archives may own the microfilm for their regional Freedman’s Bureau office. Freedman’s Bureau Bank records (National Archives Record Group 101) may be accessed online through (If your library purchases this subscription, you will be able to search the database from home by using your library card.) A surname search for Barclay yielded ten records and an additional two for Barkley. The record for Abram Barclay of Fayette County, Kentucky, indicated that on 30 August 1870, he was a 21-year-old waiter working for a Mrs. Woodward. His signature card indicated that his father and mother were Nathan and Ann, and that his brothers and sisters were Isaac, Charley, Martha, Mary and Ann. The record for Indianer Harrison, dated 14 October 1872, disclosed that she was born in Powhatan County, Virginia, and was a 26-year-old seamstress residing on Danville Street in Richmond. Her father’s name was Ransom and her mother had died prior to 1872. Her brothers were John, Edward, Bettie, Sally, and Courtney. Her husband’s name was Nathaniel, as was her son’s. As these examples illustrate, such Freedmen’s Bureau records could be pivotal to your research.

An additional online source for bureau records can be found on a site created by the University of South Florida, Africana Archives, Freedmen’s Bureau Records, which presents “new and unpublished records that document slaves, freed persons and their descendants.” In pursuing that mission, USF staff are transcribing microfilmed Freedmen’s Bureau records from the National Archives collection. Digital images for each record include not only bank account records, but also labor contracts, and lists such as “Freedmen Living on Roanoke Island, NC, Likely to Become Destitute (1866-1867).” Of particular interest to teachers will be the links to free lesson plans and teachers’ resources concerning the Freedman’s Bureau.

  • The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System provides the ability to search a soldier’s name and regiment. By entering Barkley as a last name and choosing USCT (United States Colored Troops) from the state or origin drop down box, I was obtained a list of eight soldiers, the first of whom was Henry Barkley, a Private in Co. G, 116th Regiment, USCT. His consolidated military service record is located on National Archives microfilm publication M589, roll 5. Military records are not ordinarily of great genealogical content, although the information contained within them can add immeasurably to your understanding of the life of the specific individual. When you search this index, consult both the original record and any available pension files as the latter can be rich in genealogical information. These records may be found on (subscription required), at the National Archives in Washington, D. C., or at one of its regional facilities, and in some cases at larger public libraries or state archives.

Many, many other African-American resources are available. Be sure to look for state-specific projects such as the Afrolumens Project, which focuses on central Pennsylvania, and Lowcountry Africana, which focuses on the rice-growing region of South Carolina. Cyndi’s List provides links to 671 African-American related sites. Moreover, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, based in Washington, D.C., has chapters across the country.

Finally, the following books will be very helpful in supporting your research:

Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree by Tony Burroughs (Fireside, 2001).

Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African-American Genealogy. James M. Rose & Alice Eichholz (2nd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008).

A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage, by Franklin Carter Smith and Emily Anne Croom (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008).

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