5    Feb 20132 comments

Black History Month: Resource roundup

Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron, Major League Baseball Star, image credit: biography.com

Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron, Major League Baseball Star. Image credit: biography.com

In honor of Black History Month, established in 1926 and celebrated in February, here’s a roundup of resources – websites, blogs, repositories and more – to help you learn more about your family. Each resource listed offers more links to additional information.

Today is also the birthday of African American baseball superstar Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron, born in 1934.  A major league baseball icon, Aaron is best known for breaking Babe Ruth's home run record. Read more on Aaron.

For many black families with roots in the Southern US states, research can be frustrating. Although African American genealogy research can get back to the 1880s and much earlier, it is difficult for most researchers. Researching their family trees has been almost impossible, as their ancestors' original names were literally erased. Slaves' African given names were replaced by English names and their surnames were those of their owners.

With the advent of new databases and technological tools, research has become much easier. A growing number of individuals are preparing their family stories and discovering images of their unique history.

Southern records do exist, although prior to Emancipation accessible records of births, marriages and deaths are rare. Slave owners didn't usually keep these records. Records for free blacks also exist. Some researchers have been successful in finding useful records of sale, land, personal property and in the wills of white owners. In 1867, blacks were required to adopt last names, although some slaves had adopted family names earlier; some took their former owners’ names.

Like most ethnic groups in the US, names were not exactly permanent. Spellings often changed numerous times before settling into the more permanent form.

After being freed, black families were usually too poor to have land or personal property; many remained as sharecroppers on their former owners' plantations. Thus, there are few land or estate records, although some researchers have discovered records for their families.

It is hard for most to follow a paper trail to trace their ancestry to a specific part of Africa. Slaves came from all parts of Africa, but those of different tribes were mixed together when shipped from various ports. DNA research  is a very important tool to discover tribal roots.

You can use MyHeritage's SuperSearch to research billions of historical records, millions of family trees and public family tree information. Some records might require a data subscription, others are free. Find family information for many free and subscription sites - all at one click. However, you will need to have a subscription to see the document images.


Geneabloggers.com lists nearly 80 blogs focusing on African American genealogy. Specialty blogs are a researcher's best friends for breaking news, new resources, projects, websites and databases. Check them out.


AfriGeneas: Named one of Family Tree Magazine's 101 best genealogy sites, it is devoted to African American genealogy, to researching African ancestry in the Americas and to genealogical research and resources. Features: a discussion group, message boards and chats, online interactive beginner's guide, census records, death records database, library records, photos, slave data collection and surnames databases. A family reunion primer offers many links, and an education section with activities and resources. Forums cover African-Native American, Caribbean, DNA, reunions, genealogy and history, books and more.

The USF Africana Heritage Project : An all-volunteer research project and website - sponsored by the Africana Studies department at the University of South Florida – to re-discover records documenting the names and lives of slaves, freed persons and their descendants, and share - for free - those records online. It is collaborating on Afriquest.com - a free online database - to which individuals may contribute records and materials. Additionally, the non-profit Magnolia Plantation Foundation funds a sister website - Lowcountry Africana - dedicated to the documents and cultural heritage of African Americans in South Carolina.

Freedmen's Bureau Online: The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands – known collectively as the Freedman's Bureau - was founded by the War Department in 1865 to supervise relief and educational activities relating to refugees and newly-freed slaves, and including issuing rations, clothing and medicine. Many reports and documents are online, including labor records, early marriage records and more. The goal is to use innovative imaging and indexing technologies to make the records easily accessible to the public, including historians, genealogists, beginning genealogists and students.

Slaveholders and African Americans, 1860-1870:Tom Blake has been identifying the largest slaveholders on the 1860 US census, and matching surnames to African American households in the 1870 census, the first to enumerate former slaves by name. According to his estimate, large slaveholders held 20-30% of the total number of slaves in the US in 1860.

Free African Americans of Virginia, N Carolina, S Carolina, Maryland & Delaware: Paul Heinegg shares his books on free African Americans online - Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina and Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware. Older records are updated, and there are some 2,000 pages of family histories based on colonial court order and minute books, free Negro registers, marriage bonds, census records, etc. An additional 2,000 pages are listed under Colonial Tax lists.

Library of Congress: American Memory Collection: Photographs, sound recordings, sheet music, maps and documents relating to African American history and culture.

Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System: The history of Black Americans in the Civil War. Some 10% of Union troops were African American soldiers. The free database holds information on soldiers, regiments, battles, civil war parks and more.

American Slave Narratives - An Online Anthology: A University of Virginia project offers more than 2,300 interviews and photos of former slaves (1936-38). The online database of slave narratives includes some of those interviews and photos.

African American Cemeteries Online: Volunteer-submitted cemetery transcriptions. Search by surname or state to find people buried in US African American cemeteries.

The African-American Migration Experience: The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture presents information on the major waves of African American migrations (Transatlantic Slave Trade, Runaway Journeys, the Domestic Slave Trade, Colonization and Emigration, Haitian Immigration, Caribbean Migration, African Migration and African American migration within the United States. Find a timeline and photographs.

Check out Facebook and other social media sites for relevant pages and groups.

Have you discovered records for your family in the resources listed below? Let us know in the comments below.

Search for your ancestors:

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I have noticed several local societies and libraries are offering "Black History Month" genealogy workshops and programs. You can check your area on the Conference Keeper website (http://conferencekeeper.weebly.com/index.html) to see if anything is happening, or to suggest an event. Great post and summary of the resources that are available! ~ Jen
  2. Thanks for sharing Jen

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