Tips for Tracing African-American Roots

Tips for Tracing African-American Roots

For African Americans, piecing together family history can present some unique challenges including a lack of credible documentation.

Fortunately, there is a vast collection of data available online that can provide insight into who you are, where you're from, and can also endow a fascinating sense of history to your descendants. offers the following tips to make the initial search a bit easier:

Search the U.S. Federal Census

For many African Americans, the paper trail begins with the 1870 Census. This is the first U.S. Census that listed former slaves as citizens.

Another great resource is the Census Free Population Schedules. These schedules list the names of African-American citizens living in the northern free states prior to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

Glancing at a census record can reveal information like an ancestor's occupation, annual income and home ownership. Census records are available online at

Study family trees submitted by genealogists

Many researchers assume their efforts are pioneering, but many genealogists have already researched the exact same family lines. By reviewing family trees submitted to Ancestry World Tree by other genealogists, you might find references to your own ancestors.

The Ancestry World Tree database contains more than 250 million names compiled from family trees submitted by users and is the largest collection of its kind on the Internet.

Read slave narratives

Journals and slave narratives are among the most evocative of genealogical resources for African Americans. Now that these texts are available online, researchers can easily search for specific names and events.

More importantly, these first-hand accounts not only provide a snapshot view of slave life in America, but also sometimes provide details about a slave's parents and/or owners.

And many of these accounts contain insights into slave folklore, poetry, songs, recipes and even ghost stories. The entire Slave Narrative collection is available online at

Excerpt from the narrative of former slave Annie Bridges:

"I's born on March 6, 1855; on Wolf Crick, in St. Francois County. My muthuh, Clausa McFarland Bridges, was borned on Wolf Crick too, but mah fauthar, Jerry Bridges, kum from Californie. William McFerland was our boss, and he had a lotta' slaves. Us liv'd in a log cabin, wis two rooms. Yep, there was a floor an' wo had a bed, but hit hadn't no mattress; jue' roped an' cord'd."

Visit the library

Universities, genealogy libraries, chancery offices and state historical societies house records ranging from censuses and tax documents to early voter registrations.

Of particular value are Freedmen's Bureau records. Established in 1865, the Freedman's Bureau was envisioned as a relief organization for refugees and former slaves. While in operation, they collected personal records and information such as birthplace, occupation and even complexion.

Plantation journals are another excellent source for information. These journals include slave inventories, slave family groupings, individual names and bills of sale.

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