Perhaps the most unpleasant chapter in American history has been the combined story of slavery and the subsequent segregation of African-Americans. Because this entire population was marginalized for over two centuries, many of the institutions associated with their history in the United States have been lost. In addition, those who were brought here as slaves were seized without documentation in Africa, coming to this country with no documented past. This has left the descendants of slaves with no family history to trace prior to their ancestors’ capture and forced immigration. It can make a frustrating process out of something that should be exciting and educational.
Fortunately, time has begun to open some doors for reassembling the things necessary to create family records for African-Americans. The process is similar to what is done for other ethnicities, but several key differences exist as well. Conducting family research requires learning some new skills, exploring some alternative avenues, and just being creative in what you do to find out what you want to know.
Although white society refused to accept African-Americans into most educational institutions or forms of media, the resulting black-only groups were just as thorough in recordkeeping as their all-white counterparts. Education is a good example; the United States has a large number of HBCU’s (historically black colleges and universities) that were established to educate black students who could not be admitted into public institutions.
This separation existed in all parts of society at that time. A great first step in tracing african american genealogy is to track down all-black newspapers. Owned and operated exclusively by African-American journalists, their content was focused more on news that affected blacks, including society issues such as marriages, births, and deaths. And even when larger publications carried this content, it was typically less detailed than what the black community’s own outlets generated.
Exploring the offerings available from African-American newspapers as well as by writers like Frederick Douglass can be a very powerful and effective genealogy tool. They can provide much more character to the story than simple demographics and vital statistics.
Separated Military Records
During the Civil War and subsequent conflicts, the United States military accepted African-American soldiers with one notable exclusion: They could not serve in units with white personnel. As a result, units like the Tuskegee Airmen formed, serving bravely for their country.
Because the military meticulously documents everything, there are numerous records available from the various African-American fighting units. And in an unexpected bonus, their separation can actually prove beneficial. So many genealogical records do not include information on race, and many have been damaged to make the records unreadable. This can be troublesome for African-Americans tracing relatives who had popular names; even in a small town, there might be several John Smiths, some white and some black.
When the John Smith you’re seeking was in an all-black military unit, you have effectively filtered out all the white ones that are definitely not who you’re looking for.
When paper fails you, science will pick up the slack. Establishing linkages within families is incredibly simple today with DNA tracing. Many stories have emerged involving people who found biological families and long-lost relatives thanks to joining a DNA registry.
In fact, DNA is more reliable than documents. Household census data might indicate that someone is the son or daughter of one of the adults in the home when in fact, the person is adopted, illegitimate, or has been taken in from other relatives who were unable to care for him or her. The caretakers consider the person their child, but the biology establishes otherwise.
DNA can also fill in the holes that exist in family histories. As we noted earlier, much of the information on African slaves begins after their arrival in the United States. No one necessarily knows anything about what part of Africa had been their home. DNA analysis can provide clear links to specific parts of the continent, deepening and completing a family’s history.
The struggle of African-Americans in the United States can certainly complicate the process of genealogical research, but with some resourcefulness and patience, an investigator can dig deeper than might have been originally thought possible.