Along Those Lines...
In Celebration of Black History Research
by George G. Morgan
Ancestry Daily News
Never before has there been more reason for African-ancestored genealogists and family historians to celebrate Black History Month! Not since Alex Haley's landmark book, Roots, was published in 1976 and the subsequent blockbuster television series has there been such an interest in researching African and African American ancestors.
Now, well into the twenty-first century, the awareness of the existence of records many people had thought weren't available or in accessible is heightened. Technology has enabled vast amounts of data to be made available as digitized images or through electronic indexes that point to the repositories where original or microfilmed records are housed.
In "Along Those Lines . . ." this week, let's explore some of the record types that are available electronically at Ancestry.com that can help further your research if you are of African American ancestry.
**U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules
The federal government's first official attempt to determine the full extent of slavery in the United States began with the 1850 census Slave Schedules and was repeated in 1860. These documents were completed in addition to the standard population schedules and were used to determine the geographical concentrations of slavery (and it wasn't only in the South), slave population densities and living conditions, and social conditions. These documents offer tremendous possibilities for the researcher. They are digitized and, even though names changed over time, family groups and ages can be invaluable in tracing ancestors beyond the period of the American Civil War.
The Slave Narratives database at Ancestry.com is an unparalleled collection of the reminiscences of former slaves. It consists of more than 20,000 pages of type-scripted interviews with approximately 3,500 former slaves, collected over a ten-year period between 1929 and 1939. The database is searchable by name, state, category, keyword, and a special thesaurus-style filter that interprets like words. Perhaps some of the most compelling insights into the lives of persons who endured life in slavery can be found in this collection of records.
**Freedman's Bank Records, 1865 to 1874
The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company was incorporated in 1865 by an act signed by President Lincoln. The purpose of the company was to create an institution where former slaves and their dependents could place and save their money. Ultimately there were thirty-seven branch offices in seventeen states with approximately 70,000 depositors and deposits of more than $57 million. However, in 1874, as a result of mismanagement, fraud, and other situations, the Freedman's Bank closed.
The bank's record signature cards have been digitized and contain a wealth of information about the depositor. Name, date, age, gender, height, employer, plantation, parents' names, place of birth, residence, marital status, names of children, and names of siblings may be found on many of the cards. This information is invaluable for tracing families both backwards and forwards, and for possibly locating other plantation and property records to assist your search. These records are indexed and searchable by name and the full images can be viewed, printed, or downloaded.
Many African-ancestored researchers overlook the important possibilities offered by city directories. From 1865 well into the twentieth century, many families were on the move seeking opportunities to advance themselves and improve their lives. If one place didn't work out, many moved on. Between the censuses, city directories may have been among the few places that heads of household were recorded. In many places, the black residents were listed separately, following the listings of whites and other ethnicities in the directory. While this seems terrible today, it actually can be a boon to your research by helping to differentiate black ancestors from white persons with the same name. The unparalleled collection of city directories online at Ancestry.com offers a wealth of possibilities.
The extensive Civil War databases at Ancestry.com are an impressive collection of interlinked materials. A search for a soldier or officer will provide service record information that includes a link to the military unit in which he served. A click on that link will display a list of the battles fought by that regiment, some of which are linked to descriptive information. A link at the top to the List of Soldiers displays a county-by-county, alphabetized list of personnel in the unit. This is important to note because very often relatives and neighbors enlisted or were mustered at or about the same date. There may be direct or collateral family ties there that, if you reference the names back to the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, will make it apparent that the relationships could well have been very close.
* **The World War I Draft Registration Cards database is a great collection of indexed, searchable, digitized records. The mandatory registration during the three draft calls in 1917 and 1918 included a large segment of the American male population and is another excellent genealogical resource.
* Similarly, the World War II Army Enlistment Records (1938-1946) database is another place to check for your ancestor's entry into the United States army. Further, the World War II Prisoners of War (1941-1946) provides details of a finite period of imprisonment and his or her eventual status.
Family and Local Histories
I have been exploring the thousands of online family and local histories at Ancestry.com for months. Many of the titles are digitized and completely searchable. It seems to me that I'm always finding something new and exciting there that otherwise I probably don't have access to in my local library's collection. Certainly the Slave Narratives mentioned before are part of this collection. However, there are other titles as well that may be helpful as well. Here are some examples:
* **Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719-1820
* The Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI)
* The Encyclopedia of American Biography
* **The First African Baptist Church of North America (digitized and indexed)
* Cyclopaedia of African Methodism
* Louis Hughes, Thirty Years a Slave, 1832-62
* **Slave life in Georgia: a narrative of the life, sufferings, and escape of John Brown, a fugitive slave, now in England
* History of the Underground Railroad as it was conducted by the Anti-Slavery League
* **Slavery petitions and papers
* Directory of Negro businesses, professions, and churches for Detroit and environs
* Free Negro owners of slaves in the United States in 1830: together with Absentee ownership of slaves in the United States in 1830
* **The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770-1800
* **Blacks in the State of Oregon, 1788-1971
Historical Newspaper Collection
The newspaper records of cities, towns, and smaller communities reflect the daily life in those areas. Who is to say what is and is not printed there, or whose names are included? An obituary found in an unusual town for one of our ancestors may be the one missing link we've been seeking for years!