Freedmans Village, researching African American Genealogy

African American Genealogy – Finding Your Roots

Editor’s Note: The following piece from our archives by the late Carolyn L. Barkley contains excellent resources and tips for researching African American Genealogy.

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 added exponentially to the richness of the resources available and to 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. Shows 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 new 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. 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,, now is an extraordinary time to begin researching African American roots.

The African American research process begins like any other:

  •  Gather together your family’s 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., 2007) 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., Spring 2009) and Christine Rose’s Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures (CR Publications, 2004) will help you determine where specific records are located. You will also want to check online resources such as Family Search, provided by the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter-day Saints to gain additional clues.

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 may be accessible online or by using a genealogy program available through many public libraries. Try to extend your research backward to the 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 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 as the indexer misread the “fb” notation for “fl.” Only by locating the same families in the 1850 census, where they were enumerated clearly as free blacks, was the problem clarified.)

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 in which 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.
  • 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 uncovered. You may also be able to find family papers listed in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (see a previous article on this blog for more on this research) and the Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations, a microfilm collection that includes manuscripts held in major research libraries throughout the South. (This collection is often overlooked and will be the topic of next week’s blog article.) Collections of family papers may include diaries with information on slaves 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.
  •  Howard University’s Freedmen’s Bureau Project includes digitized copies of marriage certificates. While I found some of the indexing to be faulty, the information available was very interesting. The marriage certificate for Richard Dorsey and Sarah Jane Mathews, married on 8 January 1865, in Natchez, Mississippi, revealed that the groom was 27 years old and that his color, as well as that of his mother and father, was black. He had lived with another woman for six years, but had been “separated from her by force.” The bride was 30 years old and her father was black, while her mother was a mulatto. She had lived with another man for three years, but had been “separated from him by force.” Together Richard and Sarah Jane had two children. The certificate is signed by the minister of the A.M.E. Church in Natchez. While no parental or children’s names were included on the certificate, the life that these two individuals had enjoyed prior to 1865 is very illuminating.
  • The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database provides the ability to search a soldier’s name and regiment. By entering Barkley as a last name and choosing USCT 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. “Cyndi’s List” provides links to 649 African-American related sites. The African-American 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., 2005).

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).

Image Credit: Freedmans Village, By Cliff from Arlington, Virginia, USA (Freedman’s Village Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.


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