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Discover Black Heritage

Your Guide to Finding African American Ancestors

* Books * Societies * General Web Sites *

Special Topics:

Books that will help you plan your research:

Societies you may want to join

Selected Online Sites for More Information.

Guides and Data

Guides to Research

Data: These sites might include instructive information, but also have data that will help you as you research

  • Take time to explore these two major sites; I should have said, "take a lot of time to explore..."
  • A few years ago ProQuest partnered with AfriGeneas to offer a new subscription database to libraries called "African American Heritage." Did your library subscribe? Unfortunately the timing coincided with a terrible economy that resulted in sharply pared budgets for libraries, probably resulting fewer libraries than otherwise might have purchasing it
    • Here is a video that describe African American Heritage .
    • Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne Indiana, which has a wonderful genealogy collection, subscribes., but you must use it on-site.
  • A historical background is essential --Blackpast.org contains over 10,000 pages "dedicated to providing information to the general public on African American history in the United States and on the history of the more than one billion people of African ancestry around the world." You will want to begin with the Users Guide to the site

Specific Topics of Interest (both pre and post 1865)

Burial / Census / DNA / Church / Migration / Military / Newspaper / Reconstruction /

Burial Records: For general information, see: Guide to Researching Cemetery & Funeral Home Records.

Cemetery: Did the person die at a time and place when he or she would have been buried in a segregated cemetery or a segregated part of a larger cemetery? These were often called "colored" cemeteries or sections

Funeral Home

Census: For general information, see Guide to Researching Census Records.

  • FamilySearch Wiki: African American Census
  • Ancestry Wiki from The Source: African American Census Schedules/African Americans in the Federal Census
  • NARA Website: PowerPoint titled: African Americans in the Federal Census 1790-1930 (.pdf)
  • Wikipedia: Race and Ethnicity in the Unitd States Census.
  • Work all census records, 1940 back
    • 1880-1930 names birthplace of parents, which is especially helpful for those with slave ancestry, although we must worry about accuracy.
      • 1900 and 1930 and 1940instructions were to not designate "mulatto"; 1910, 1920 distinguished between mulatto and Negro or Black.
    • 1870 is the first census to name all persons; officially tried to distinguish black from mulatto.
    • There are separate enumerations for slaves 1860 and 1850 of each slave owned by a specific person, giving age, gender and distinguishing whether black or mulatto. (only for those states in which slavery was legal). Only the owner is named except in rare circumstandes when a slave's name is included.
      • 1850 also asks number of slaves manumitted and number who are fugitives from the state.
    • 1820 , 1830 and 1840 provide age breakdowns for "free colored persons" and "slaves" in a household, but the groupings differ than those for white families. Remember: not all free blacks were in households headed by a person of color.
    • 1790, 1800 and 1810 asks only the total number of slaves in the household and total number of "all other free persons", i.e. non white, excluding Indians. Remember: not all free Blacks were in households headed by a person of color.
      • Free Black Heads of Families 1790 (National Archives Publication Special List #34) An alphabetical index, broken down by state. Nice for an overview, but note it does not break down by county or town.
  • African American Census Records Online (from Afrigeneas)
  • Christine's Genealogy website also includes links to various census transcriptions that are available online

Church: For general information, see Guide to Finding and Using Church Records

DNA (Genetic) For general information, see Guide to DNA & Genealogy (but it is an outdated page, so not really)


  • Visit the website for "In Motion" a site designed to help African Americans understand and trace the migrations of their ancestors. It has a huge database... 17,000 pages of text, 8, 350 photographs and 65 maps. It will take you some time to explore the wealth of information there.


Names and ages:


  • Myth: slaves are likely to have the surname of the last owner. Fact: some do; some don't.
  • Myth: slaves had only first names. In fact many slaves took surnames, but they kept the surname a secret from Whites. Some slaves who used surnames secretly kept the name; some did not.
  • You might assume all members of the family took the same surname. This was not necessarily the case, especially when there were adult children or families separated while in slavery.
  • You might assume that once you learn a name, that will the name taken at emanciation. Some former slaves changed their names one or more times, possibly to make recovery more difficult, should emancipation be rescinded. Possibly to fit into a part of the family that took another surname.
  • Because of the heritage of slavery, surnames for African Americans may be connected to other families or simply adopted as a choice upon emancipation. "Large Slaveholders of 1860 and African American surname matches from 1870" :
  • In 2001 Tom Black undertook a study to determine the correlation of surnames of slave owners with surnames of freed slaves. He estimates that in 1860, slaveholders of 200 or more slaves, while constituting less than 1 % of the total number of U.S. slaveholders held 20-30% of the total number of slaves in the U.S. His study of these large slaveholders spans 150 southern counties in 10 states and direct descendants of slaveholders can determine if their ancestor was in this category; African American descendants of persons who were enslaved in a particular County in 1860, if they have an idea of the surname of the slaveholder, can check this list for the surname. If the surname is found, they can then view the census image elsewhere for the details listed regarding the sex, age and color of the slaves.
  • In his article "What's in a Name" (Family Chronicle Feb. 2007 p. 17) Rick Crume notes that since may African Americans have Welsh names, there is the argument that many slave holders were Welsh and mentions an interesting website that argues against this notion: Why do Welsh names seem to be so common within the African American community
  • To find others researching African-Americans, search the Afrigeneas Surname Database and Registry.


  • Slaves ages were often approximations; be careful not to be too exact when using post 1870 census records.

Newspapers: For general information, see Guide to Newspaper Research, this website.

America's first African-American newspaper began in 1827 in New York City.

  • To locate African American newspapers digitized and available online
    • Freedom's Journal, is available online; this was the first African American newspaper, started 1827.
    • U.S. African American newspapers digitized, searchable and available online at Chronicling America.
    • Afro Archives (Baltimore and DC)
    • Collections listed below are available only through subscribing libraries. Check to see if your library, or a nearby library, subscribes. Don't overlook university and college libraries; often you can use the subscription in the library.
      • Accessible Archives offer a collection of African American newspapers, described here.
      • ProQuest offers a collection Black Newspapers, described here.
      • A sub section of Readex. America's Historical Newspapers. To select only African American, click on the link "more newspaper collections" by the search tag, upper left corner, then select African American. The collection is described here.
    • The subscription service GenealogyBank.com has a searchable collection of African American Newspapers 1827-1999
      • click on a state at the bottom of the page to see what newspapers are available for that state. You can search the whole database(at the very bottom of the page, under the list of states), a specific state or an individual newspaper.


The Freedman's Bank AND Freedmen Bureau records (note: these are two separate entities)

Records of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, aka Freedman's Bank records(National Archives Record Group

Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. (National Archives Record Group 105); aka Freedmen's Bureau records.

Records online--these are incomplete sets of records; the whole is not available online.

Southern Claims Commission (1871-1873)

Pre Civil War Research

Free / Slave

Free Blacks in colonial and antebellum America:

Finding Slave Ancestors: 

The importation of slaves into the U.S. was outlawed in 1807 although there may have been illegal transport after that and officially ended with the 13th Amendment in December 1865. Learn more at Wikipedia

Slave States

Slave Trade :

  • What are Slave Trade Registers
  • The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database has information on almost 35,000 slaving voyages. Again you will have to take time to explore this extensive resource. A good first step would be to view the demo that gives an overview of the site. (You'll have to give the demo time to download). NOTE: this database includes data on all transatlantic trade, of which voyages to North America comprised only a small protion. It is a fabulous resource, but requires details beyond which you are likely to have, especially as you begin your research.

Slave Narratives

Record sources relevant to researching slave ancestors:

Records of slaves will be found in a variety of documents, but research is greatly hampered by the practice of using only given names for slaves. Ideally, the very first thing you want to determine is the name of the last slave holder, but you will need clues in order to that.


Census Records, Slave Schedules

Court Records: wills, property, manumission, registers etc. You will have to research the specifics of record keeping for the state in which you are searching.

  • Digital Library on American Slavery "The Digital Library contains detailed information on about 150,000 individuals, including slaves, free people of color, and whites. These data have been painstakingly extracted from 2,975 legislative petitions and 14,512 county court petitions, and from a wide range of related documents, including wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, depositions, court proceedings, amended petitions, among others. Buried in these documents are the names and other data on roughly 80,000 individual slaves, 8,000 free people of color, and 62,000 whites, both slave owners and non-slave owners. "
  • American Memory Project: Slaves and the Courts 1740-1860. Digital images of pamphlets and books in the Library of Congress. Whether you find your ancestor or not, you will be immersed in this site for hours.
  • The DC Court Slave Records collection is free on Fold3

Use the FHL Catalog to find what court records have been filmed for the state, county or city you are researching. Check at all three: state, county and local level. Here are some subdivisions that might prove useful:

  • Court Records
  • Minorities
  • Slavery and Bondage
  • Probate
  • Land and Property

David Paterson has written an excellent article on finding Georgia's Slave Population in Legal Records; even if you are researching another state, this should serve as a guide as to the types of records you might find and where you might look

Beth Wilson has a video available at FamilySearch.org : Trails Back: Tracing Ancestors in Slavery that is well worth watching.

Manumission Records

Plantation and other Private Records (of the slave owners)

  • Bible records of the owners may name slaves; here is an example. If you know the owners surname, you might try to find related bible records.
    • Google slave bible records to find some online.
    • Check bible records in southern archives and libraries; here is an example of some held at the University of Virginia.
    • Another Google strategy is to use the name of the southern state in which your ancestor resided and google that with the words bible records, e.g. virginia bible records
  • Find plantation records in southern archives, libraries and historical societies, use the microfilmed set "Records of Ante-ellum Southern Plantations From the Revolution Through the Civil War"

Slave Insurance Policies -- these are just starting to become available to researchers.

Runaway Slaves (Fugitive Slaves)

Underground Railroad -- records rarely exist, but you will want to understand this.

More Links...


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This page modified June 6, 2015