African American Genealogy and History

Natalie D. Cottrill

Learning about your family origins is a wonderful journey. But, for black families with Southern States slave ancestry, there are many stumbling blocks that enter into genealogy research. These can be frustrating and we understand. Generally, African American genealogy research for Southern families goes well back to the 1880s. But, earlier than 1880, the research becomes really hard for most amateur researchers. Don't give up! It seems as if every month, another resource comes online and to provide help.

As professional genealogists who work in these Southern States records regularly, we understand why research is challenging. Fewer records of helpful genealogical data exist about black individuals in the South prior to the 1870s. The data that does exist is eclectic and challenging to find. For instance, prior to emancipation, the usual records of births, marriages and deaths rarely, if ever, exist. White slave owners didn't generally keep good records of their slaves' lives. Sometimes there are records with which to trace slave ancestry back several generations prior to Emancipation, but not the same types of records as were usually kept for the free population. Land, personal property tax records, and will records of white slave owners are among some of the best sources to trace African American ancestry.

The first time enslaved blacks were required to have last names was in 1867. However, our research experience has shown that some slaves adopted last names earlier than 1867. The notion that many slaves took the name of the family who owned is a myth. Freed slaves sometimes took their owners' surnames, but they were free to take whatever names they wanted to, including famous people they admired. Sometimes they wouldn't settle on a permanent first and given name combination for awhile, and they'd change their names a few more times. Even then, many individuals preferred nicknames. This is one of many challenges that compounds the research of pre-1880 African American families.

After Emancipation, black families were generally too poor to afford land or personal property. Many stayed on the plantations from which they were recently freed, to work as sharecroppers. They effectively leased their home in return for working the white landowner's crops. For many years, it was frequently the case that black families in the South were so poor that they owned no land or personal property. Thus, there are few land or estate records with which to trace them. The poorer the families, the fewer the extant and genealogically significant records.

For the record, it is extremely difficult and extraordinarily rare, for most blacks to use a paper trail to trace their ancestry to a specific part of Africa. Slaves were obtained from all parts of the African continent, but because they were shipped out through some of the same ports, members of different African tribes were mixed together. DNA research is currently being conducted by Henry Louis Gates to help blacks trace their African origins back to a specific area (see the link to African American Lives 2, below). But, even this is wrought with challenges. Several blacks have found that their DNA tests returned European genetic markers.

Below you will find some wonderful sites dedicated to African American genealogy research. If you would like a professional genealogist to help you with any part of your family tree, please ask for a free estimate. Give us some specific goals and we can let you know what we can do for you, and an approximate time and expense outlay.



African American Genealogy


African American Lives 2 premiers February 6, 2008. It profiles the family histories of several prominent African American individuals including, Tina Turner, Don Cheadle, Morgan Freeman, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Chris Rock. Check your local air dates!

ProGenealogists is pleased to have helped provide research assistance for African American Lives 2. This production encompasses a key piece of American history. Please visit and watch some amazing family history stories. ProGenealogists experts can provide a free estimate to help you learn your roots, just ask - click free estimate!

The Root is a daily online magazine that provides thought-provoking commentary on today's news from a variety of black perspectives. The site also hosts an interactive genealogical section to trace one's ancestry through , a DNA testing site co-founded by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is also The Root's Editor-In-Chief. The Root aims to be an unprecedented departure from traditional American journalism, raising the profile of black voices in mainstream media and engaging anyone interested in black culture around the world. The Root is published by Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive.


Slave Narratives - Approximately four million Americans enslaved in the United States were freed at the conclusion of the American Civil War. The stories of a few thousand have been passed on to future generations through word of mouth, diaries, letters, records, or written transcripts of interviews. Only twenty-six audio-recorded interviews of ex-slaves have been found. This collection captures the stories of former slaves in their own words and voices. Little biographical information about them is available. Apart from their voices, photographs have been found only for the seven individuals below.




AfriGeneas - is a site devoted to African American genealogy, to researching African Ancestry in the Americas in particular and to genealogical research and resources in general.

The African American Mosaic - A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture

Africans in America - America's journey through slavery is presented in four parts. For each era, there is an historical Narrative, a Resource Bank of images, documents, stories, biographies, and commentaries, and a guide for using the content of the website. - The history of African Americans in the United States represents incredible triumph in the face of tremendous tragedy. serves as a portal to the vast and growing array of biographical and historical information on the Internet.



Christine's African American Genealogy


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