ESSENTIAL STEPS FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN RESEARCH

by Alva H. Griffith


INTRODUCTION

We hope the information presented here will assist you both in beginning and continuing this wonderful adventure you have undertaken in learning about your heritage and the genealogy of your family. It is often incorrectly assumed that African American genealogy is all but impossible to accomplish, and that records and information about African Americans are, for all practical purposes, non-existent. A glimpse at our new Resource Area will show that neither premise is true. Additions to this site will be made on a regular basis to help you with your research possibilities. We've only just begun...

The cardinal rules of genealogical research are the same for all people. START WITH YOURSELF AND WORK BACKWARDS. Go from the known to the unknown. Study the history of your ancestral locality; learn about the times your ancestors lived in, and the people whose lives may have impacted theirs. Your genealogy is not a simple list of names, places and dates; rather, it will take on life and become Your Family History.

African Americans use the same documents as every other group, although the perspective may be somewhat different. There are also a few additional types of records used by African Americans, just as there are for other groups. Last, but most assuredly not least, you will soon learn that African Americans who were enslaved were mentioned almost everywhere in the records of their owners. Once you are able to identify the owner, you can study his or her family's papers.

PHASES OF RESEARCH IN AFRICAN AMERICAN GENEALOGY

Dee Parmer Woodtor, author of "A Place Called Down Home," identifies nine phases of research. These phases roughly correspond to what you are likely to encounter in research as you proceed from what you know in the present to the past. Time spent on each phase will depend on the information and records that you find in the possession of various family members at the beginning. Remember that you must attempt to locate and document your ancestors in all known record sources for each period of time. Note that the sequence you follow is time; therefore, these phases will frequently overlap with each other as will the records.

Documenting the Contemporary Family

During this phase, your activities will be focused on collecting documentation and oral histories from family members. At the same time, you will collect other kinds of documentation in the form of written records and memorabilia that will be helpful in sorting through the past. Your activities and record search will basically be confined to the present - your and your parent's generation.

Collecting Evidence from Vital Records

Here, you are still in the twentieth century. Most states did not have universal registration of births marriages and deaths until the early twentieth century. Vital records are of utmost importance in genealogy because they provide the basic starting data for your search of all subsequent public records.

Collecting Evidence on the Ancestral Home

Here, you have located a place where your ancestors lived for a long period of time, a place which could easily be called the "ancestral home." In this phase, you are collecting information on the local area whether it is your home town or a rural place in a county. Focusing on the ancestral home allows you to identify things like settlement patterns, geographical features, and the institutions that African Americans built in the area. Making a visit to the ancestral home can often save research time. If you are unable to visit, you will be involved in an extensive information collection effort by mail as well as the use of local genealogical research facilities.

Collecting Evidence from Federal Population Censuses

As error-filled as censuses are, you will place great reliance on them in locating your ancestors as you backtrack between 1920 and 1870. Census records represent one of the few sources from which you are likely to document every living person for given points in time, namely every ten years since 1790. For African Americans, the most important available censuses are those that were taken between 1870 and 1920. Prior to 1870, enslaved African Americans were enumerated by slave owner, age and sex, but not by name.

Collecting Evidence from the Civil War & Reconstruction Periods

Here, your research begins to approach murky waters. It is relatively easy to locate and use the records for the first three phases but, once you begin to approach the period of slavery, you must be prepared to put more effort into locating records. At this point, you begin advanced research.

Identifying the Last Slave Owner

If you don't have the name of the last slave owner, there is little that you can do to continue your research. As surprising as it may seem, many African Americans do not know the identity of the last slave owner for any of their ancestral lines. Many automatically assume that they are carrying that persons surname, but you will soon come to find out that this assumption is often incorrect. Expect to spend a considerable amount of time "muddling" through records for this period of time if you do not have the last owner's name. For those with free ancestry, this point may be reached much later on in your research than for those with slave ancestry. Here, the goal would be to identify the circumstances under which your ancestors gained their freedom.

Researching the Last Slave Owner

Once you do find the last owner, you will then spend a considerable amount of time researching slave owners because they frequently left records that name slaves and the kin relationships between them. You should know, however, that not all slaves will be named in records but, in some cases, slaves are more likely to appear in records than poor landless whites. In addition, not all slave owners left records or they may have been lost, or they may still be in the possession of descendants. No one can tell you what the chances are of finding your own ancestors named in such records. One general rule is that literate wealthy planters are more likely to have left such records than poor illiterate slave owners. When you reach this phase, you frequently hope that your ancestors were owned by the former rather than the latter, if for no other reason than the chances of finding documentation. In this phase, it is important to point out that you are researching what your ancestors owners did with or to them and, in some cases, what your ancestors tried to do themselves.

Tracing Slave Ancestors Over Time

You might find documentation on your ancestors during the last phases of slavery. But what about tracing your ancestors over time during slavery? Because most of our ancestors had arrived in the United States by the time of the Revolutionary War, you will be tracing multiple lines of slave owners. Slave owners, whether planters or farmers, were fairly uniform and predictable. They bought and sold slaves and land; they migrated to new lands; they were involved in a network of kinship and business ties among slave owning families within the same area and across the whole South. Moreover, they were frequently forced to make an accounting of their most valued "property." It is frequently said with some irony that the African American researcher will probably learn more about the family that owned his ancestors than he will about his own ancestors. In terms of locating documentation, this is true. Therefore, African American genealogy focuses more on merely revealing and confronting the past rather than documenting the past in a strict genealogical sense.

Finding the First Africans

If you have been able to do a good job in the previous phases of your research, at some point you may find some of the first Africans in your lineages. Dr. Woodtor observes, “those who have conducted research on their ancestors in Maryland and Virginia have been most successful. This does not mean that if you are researching other states, you will not be able to locate your first African ancestors.” Finally, if you do locate the first Africans, it is unlikely that you will be able to go any further unless you have found an unique record that provides specifics on their place of origin.

Dr. Woodtor teaches "Wherever you begin and end, know that you are in good company. There are stories to be told and ancestors to record because they could not record their own history. When they were finally able to freely sign their names, it was with the mark "X." When they spoke to each other, it was with the same expression of hope and despair that you now speak as a human being. In the end, what they said to each other and what they said about their condition will have to rest in peace with them. But you can always tell their story by telling what happened to them. If you are a beginning genealogist and family historian, that honor has been bequeathed to you."


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25 Aug 2003 | 25 Aug 2003
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