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Resources for Researching African American Genealogy
© 2005 By Guest Editor Aaron L. Day
Resources for Researching African American Genealogy

Thanks to Alex Haley, creator of the Roots saga, people from all walks of life have developed an interest in family history research. Discovering information about ones heritage can be very rewarding. For many African Americans, however, the search can become quite challenging because of the institution of slavery.

Fortunately for us, historians who have followed in Haley’s footsteps have been documenting their research methods and procedures. Over the past 30 years since Roots first appeared countless articles and books have been published to help researchers who are looking for information about their ancestors.

For those who want to learn more about genealogy, there are numerous categories of books and records to choose from. Some of the many categories of books on genealogy and family history preservation are listed below.

Image: African American Family, Florida, 1800s
With Kind Permission of the Florida State Archives Online


1. Beginning guides for research

2. Intermediate/advanced research

3. How-to books on genealogy

4. Books on slave research

5. Books on researching free ancestors before 1865

6. Internet resources

7. Public records, including
• Census records
• Military research
• Birth
• Death
• Marriages
• Deeds/land records
• Court records

8. Additional research records including
• Church records
• Cemetery research
• Family books
• Scrapbooks/family cookbooks
• Family reunion records

As you can see from these various categories, genealogy/family history research covers a very wide range of subjects.

Like those in other professions, many genealogists or family historians have begun to specialize in certain areas. What’s available for African American research? A growing number of genealogy books are geared specifically for African American research. The historians publishing these books have put considerable time and effort into sharing and passing on their discoveries, to others who are researching ancestors.

A recent review by the author for the Southern California Genealogical Society on what is available for African American research, revealed the following:

Family Pride: The Complete Guide to Tracing African-American Genealogy,
by Donna Beasley; Publisher: Hungry Minds Inc (February, 1997)
ISBN: 0028608429

In Family Pride, Ms. Beasley gives step-by-step instructions on how to research African American family history and genealogy. Her chapters include information on how to begin, oral history, slavery, the African connection, writing and publishing your findings, and working with technology. In her bibliography, she lists books and periodicals that best support genealogy research.

Black Roots: A beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree,
by Tony Burroughs; Publisher: Fireside (February 6, 2001)
ISBN: 0684847043

In Black Roots, Mr. Burroughs delivers a step-by-step “how to” book to help those starting to research African American family history. He uses many of the methods used in an introductory genealogy class that he teaches at Chicago State University. His chapters include information on preparing to research, which covers the fundamentals of getting started. It also features guidelines on what types of records are available for research and where to find them, samples of worksheets and forms needed for research, using computers and the Internet for research, and writing a family history.

A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering your African-American Ancestors,
by Franklin Carter Smith and Emily Annie Croom; Publisher: Betterway Books (2003)
ISBN: 1-55870-605-4

In A Genealogist’s Guide, Mr. Carter and Ms. Croom provide step-by-step techniques for research that may be useful to those who want to learn more about their ancestors. Their chapters include information on basic principles of genealogy, census records, federal resources, state-county-local sources, a study of names (given names and surnames), slaveholder documents, the issue of mixed race, and special situations, such as free Negroes before the Civil War.

Finding A Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity,
by Dee Parmer Woodtor; Publisher: Random House Reference; Rev&Expand edition (November 16, 1999)
ISBN: 037570843X

In Finding A Place Called Home, Ms. Woodtor gives us methods for searching and interpreting records. She outlines interviewing techniques for family members and friends, and also shares information about using the Internet for genealogical purposes. Her chapters include information on beginning your genealogical research, techniques and tools used, searching for ancestors during the Civil War era and during Reconstruction, slaves and slave owners. Additional information includes African American institutional records, and what to do with your research: writing family memoirs or the family story.

Tracing African-American Roots,
by Dee Clem; Publisher: Gator Pub; 1st ed edition (February, 2000)
ISBN: 0967584612

In Tracing African-American Roots, Ms. Clem presents a great how-to book that provides general guidelines on how to use oral history, personal family data, and public records to find your ancestors. Her chapters include information on starting your search for African American ancestors, organizing your records, the importance of libraries and archives, and census schedules. The following records are also reviewed; vital, cemetery, mortuary, church, court, land and tax, military, slavery, and miscellaneous records. Resources on the Internet are also covered.

How To Trace Your African-American Roots,
by Barbara Thompson Howell; Publisher: Citadel Press (January, 1999)
ISBN: 0806520558

In How to Trace Your African-American Roots, Ms. Howell produces a practical guide that shows you how to use the basic resources of every genealogist to trace your ancestors and more. Her chapters include information on where to find and what to look for in birth records, marriage certificates, deeds, death records, wills, and census records. For beginning genealogists/family historians Howell outlines how to start, how to keep track of everything, how to locate family documents, and how to investigate church, cemetery, census, and town and county records.

Finding Your African American Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide,
by David T. Thackery; Publisher: Ancestry Publishing (October, 1998)
ISBN: 0916489906

Finding Your African American Ancestors is a compilation of works by the late David T. Thackery. Mr. Thackery was a curator of local and family history at the Newberry Library in Chicago for fifteen years. His chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy” as well as his guide to African American research at the Newberry Library is included in this book.

Other chapters in this book include information on free blacks, the Underground Railroad, the transition from slavery to freedom, and military records. Also included are slave narratives from various states, and additional African American sources.

Black Genesis,
by James Rose and Alice Eichholz; Publisher: Genealogical Publishing Company; 3rd edition (April, 2003)
ISBN: 0806317353

In Black Genesis, Mr. Rose and Ms. Eichholz outline suggested steps for the beginning genealogist/family historian. They encourage the development of black genealogical research and also offer ways genealogical materials can be used to reexamine history.

Their chapters include information for the novice – an introduction to genealogy, genealogical guidebooks, and oral history. National Archives and federal records are reviewed, as well as war records – Revolution (1776), the War of 1812, the Civil War, and other military records. There is also a complete chapter on slave research, including such topics as bills of slave sales, slave advertisements, court records, plantation records and diaries, and other records that may be useful.

Locating Free African American Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide,
by Aaron L. Day; Publisher: Carlberg Press, Anaheim, California,

In Locating Free African American Ancestors, the author presents a reference manual that is a great aid for genealogy researchers. It gives tips on problem - solving techniques, research methods, and resources for locating ancestors. Included, is information on beginning your search, tracing your ancestors through the census schedules, locating information about free ancestors from documents, and following the paper trail to your ancestors.

The chapters also include information on searching for free ancestors before 1865, genealogical forms, steps for tracing your ancestors, genealogy resources on the Web and your public library, resources available for researching your ancestors, and genealogical books and magazines. There is also a listing of surnames of Negroes who were free in the United States in 1830.

A Student’s Guide To African American Genealogy,
by Anne E. Johnson, Adam Merton Cooper, and Roger Rosen; Publisher: New York: Oryx Press (1996)
ISBN: 0-89774-972-3

In A Student’s Guide to African American Genealogy, the authors illustrate the unique and important contributions of African Americans to American culture. The book is tailored not only for African Americans who are trying to trace their roots back to Africa, but also for those who may be interested in African American family history research.

The first chapter of this book lists other books for those interested in further study. The chapter “Starting Your Exploration” details fourteen books on African American History and “African American Language and Culture” reviews 45 books on African American History. There are also eleven books of interest on African language and culture.

Other chapters include information about slave life, free blacks and freedmen, and Reconstruction and modern history. For the beginning researcher, there is also information on getting started, where to research, family history on the Internet, and preserving your family history, which includes the topics family tree, oral history, and writing your family history.

Black Family Research: Records of Post-Civil War Federal Agencies at the National Archives,
by Reginald Washington; Publisher: National Archives and Records Administration – Reference Information Paper 108;

In Black Family Research, Mr. Washington reviews some of the most important records available for the study of black family life and genealogy. These are Reconstruction era federal records that document the black family’s struggle for freedom and equality. These documents are available for research at the National Archives and Records Administration.

This reference booklet describes three post-Civil War federal agencies’ records. (1). The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (Record Group 105), also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was established in the War Department by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865. (2). Records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, which was established as a banking institution primarily for the benefit of former slaves. (3). Records of the Commissioners of Claims, which was established by an act of Congress on March 3, 1871, to review and make recommendations regarding the claims of Southern Loyalists who had “furnished stores and supplies for the use of the Army” during the Civil War.

Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830,
by Carter G. Woodson; Publisher: University Microfilms International (1979)
ASIN: B000878WBY

In Free Negro Heads of Families, Mr. Woodson documents the study of the Free Negro in the United States 1830 and beyond. It was his aim to promote the further study of a part of our history that had been neglected. With a grant from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial in 1921, Mr. Woodson and a staff of researchers documented the Negroes in this country who were free prior to the Emancipation in 1865. Written in 1925, the information in this book was extracted from the manuscript schedules of the 1830 United States Census.

In the introduction, Mr. Woodson covers the origin of the free Negro, the attempt to prevent the increase of the free Negroes, economic achievement, the free Negro before the law, and social distinctions. He also references other books of interest that have been written on the subject. There were 319,498 free Negroes in the United States in 1830, and they were living in 28 states. The surnames of those families are listed in this book, as well as an index to the names, and the states where they were living.

Further Reading:

Black Genealogy, by Charles L. Blockson and Ron Fry; Publisher: Black Classic Press; Reissue edition (April, 1997)
ISBN: 0933121539

Finding Your People: An African-American Guide to Discovering your Roots, by Sandra Lee Jamison; Publisher: Perigee Books; 1st ed edition (February, 1999)
ISBN: 0399524789

The Free Negro in North Carolina, by John Hope Franklin; Publisher: University of North Carolina Press; Reprint edition (December, 1995)
ISBN: 0807845469

The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military, by Gerald Astor; Publisher: Da Capo Press (April 24, 2001)
ISBN: 030681031X

Roots, by Alex Haley; Publisher: Doubleday; Reissue edition (September 17, 1976)
ISBN: 0385037872

Free Negro Registers, by Karen Sutton.

Slaves in the Family, by Edward Ball; Publisher: Ballantine Books (December 29, 1998)
ISBN: 0345431057

African American Genealogy: A Bibliography for Beginners, by Barnetta McGhee White;

Free Blacks and Mulattos in South Carolina 1850 Census, by Margaret Peckham Motes;Publisher: Clearfield Co (October, 2000)
ISBN: 0806350261

Slaves and Nonwhite Free Persons in the 1790 Federal Census of New York, by Gilbert S. Bahn; Publisher: Clearfield Co (April, 2000)
ISBN: 0806349794

African American Genealogical Sourcebook, by Paula K. Byers; Publisher: Gale Group; 1st ed edition (April, 1995)
ISBN: 0810392267

First Steps in Genealogy, by Desmond Walls Allen; Publisher: Betterway Publications; 1st ed edition (August, 1998)
ISBN: 1558704892

Free African Americans of North Carolina & Virginia/Maryland & Delaware, by Paul Heinegg; Publisher: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.

Author, lecturer, community advocate, and family historian Aaron L. Day, is a lover of books, supporter of libraries, and promoter of family history research. He specializes in the search for free African American Ancestors (pre-1865). He has published three award-winning articles about the history of his family, as well as a guidebook Locating Free African American Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide. Please visit Aaron's website at

Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.