Southern California Genealogical Society

African American Research Resources
By Aaron L. Day

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 one's 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 25 years since "Roots" first appeared, countless articles and books have been published to help guide researchers who are looking for information about their ancestors.

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

  • Beginning guides for research
  • Intermediate/advanced research
  • How-to books on genealogy
  • Slave research
  • Researching free ancestors before 1865
  • Internet research
  • Researching public records, including
    • Census records
    • Military research
    • Birth
    • Death
    • Marriages
    • Deeds/land records
    • Court records
    • Additional research records include church records, cemetery research, scrapbooks/family cook-books, and family reunion records.

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

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; Simon & Schuster, New York;

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;

In "A Genealogist's Guide," Mr. Carter and Ms. Groom 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; Random House, New York.

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, and 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; Cater Publishing, Inc.;

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; Citadel Press Book, published by Carol Publishing Group.

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 fin in birth records, marriage certifi­cates, deeds, death records, wills, and census records. For beginning genealogists and family historians, she outlines how to start, how to keep track of every-thing, 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;
Ancestry Publishing

"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 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; Gale Research Co.

In "Black Genesis," Mr. Rose and Ms. Eichholz outline suggested steps for the beginning genealo­gist and 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-the 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; Carlberg Press, Anaheim, Calif.;

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; The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.

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; 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.

  • 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.
  • Records of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Co., which was established as a banking insti­tution primarily for the benefit of former slaves.
  • 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; The Assn. for the Study of Negro Life and History, Inc.;

In "Free Negro Heads of Families," Mr. Woodson documents the study of the free Negro in the United States in 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 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.


  • "Black Genealogy," by Charles L. Blockson and Ron Fry;
  • "Finding Your People: An African-American Guide to Discovering your Roots," by Sandra Lee Jamison;
  • "Free Negro in North Carolina," by John Hope Franklin; The University of North Carolina Press;
  • "The Right to Fight: A History of Afri­can Americans in the Military," by Gerald Astor;
  • "Roots," by Alex Haley; Garden City, New York;
  • "Free Negro Registers," Karen Sut­ton;
  • "Slaves in the Family," by Edward Ball;
  • "African American Genealogy: A Biblio­graphy for Beginners," by Barnetta McGhee White;
  • "Free Blacks and Mulattos in South Carolina 1850 Census," by Margaret Peckham Motes;
  • "Slaves and Nonwhite Free Persons in the 1790 Federal Census of New York," by Gilbert S. Bahn;
  • "African American Genealogical Sourcebook," by Paula K. Byers;
  • "First Steps in Genealogy," by Desmond Walls Allen;
  • "Free African Americans of North Carolina & Virginia/Maryland & Delaware," by Paul Heinegg; Clearfield Co. Inc., Genealogical Pub­lishing Co., Inc.;


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