Still I Rise: problems and opportunities in African-American genealogical research
African-American genealogy presents some unique challenges and opportunities. Of course, every family, every branch, and every individual of every tree is unique and challenging, but African-American research is especially difficult because of the lack of records pertaining to black Americans prior to the 1860s. Although some Africans immigrated after the Civil War and some individuals may have lived as free persons prior to the war, the majority of black Americans are descended from slaves. I have traced my own white roots in one line as far back as my 14x great-grandfather in the 1500s and can name as many as nine countries my ancestors came from. When I began researching my wife’s heritage, I found myself having a lot of trouble going beyond a few generations. I have heard genealogists and family historians refer to this as The Wall. This is also a deterrent to many black Americans who feel their own history will be too difficult or too painful to trace. They would rather not consider the difficulties their ancestors endured. When I research my European branches, I like to imagine how my forefathers chose to come to America for a better life. I sympathize with the hardships they endured seeking the American Dream in their new home. Slaves did not choose to come to America. Their history and that of their descendants (especially in the South) was difficult. When learning the stories of those who came through slave trade, genealogy forces us to consider harsh realities that are very strange to us in 2012.
The further back you go, the less records exist for any group, but the slavery system made it much worse. Slaves were property and left no real paper trail. Here are a few barriers to genealogical research:
- Families were split apart. The importation of slaves ended in the United States in 1807. By the time slavery itself ended, you have an entire generation that has known only slavery. Obviously much of their original identity and history is lost.
- Slaves did not record their marriages at the county courthouse.
- Southern states had laws prohibiting slaves from learning to read and write. You aren’t likely to leave behind a lot of records when you’re illiterate.
- Census records did not name slaves. They simply gave the age and gender of each belonging to a specific owner.
- Many female slaves were forced to breed with their white owners. With modern DNA testing, we are starting to piece together those lineages, but the reality is painful to all involved and difficult to prove.
- After the Civil War, many former slaves took the name of their masters. Others may have simply made up names. This creates quite a mess for genealogists. I have one branch where two sets of Morris families from Franklin County, Georgia kept intermarrying. At first I thought they were incestuous until I realized both groups had likely come from the same plantation.
- Many families migrated after slavery, but the trails are very difficult to follow as they did not have written records.
- Many former slaves were poor, and records are always scarcer for the poor. You can forget about a fancy headstone.
- Blacks were not likely to make the mainstream newspapers even decades after slavery.
Reading all of those barriers, one might be very discouraged about researching African-American genealogy. The harder it is to find records, the more important it is to record the stories. I want my children to know as much about their mother’s side as mine, if possible. There are some unique records that are helpful in tracing your African-American roots:
Freedman’s Bank Records: The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company was incorporated in 1865 as a bank for former slaves and their dependents. These records provide names and descriptions of people right after slavery. Great source!
Church records: Church traditionally played a huge role in African-Americans communities. Some of these records go back even before the Civil War. They may include former pastors, ministers, membership, or even minutes of business meetings.
Slave narratives: In the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) recorded 17 volumes worth of oral tradition from surviving slaves. Obviously most had young in the 1850s, but their stories still give a remarkable description of slavery and the time after.
Benevolent Societies: Organizations such as the Mosaic Templars or Circle of Friends served as insurance companies for blacks after the Civil War and sometimes included neat membership rituals.
African-American Newspapers: Many didn’t survive, but a lot of the larger ones can be found in archives.
Wills: Sometimes slaves are named in the wills of their owners, but this does not always help establish kinship for family history.
Minority Status: Sometimes it is easier to research an ethnic minority. Many old marriage records listed Colored beside the groom’s name. Browsing a census record is easier if you can ignore all the whites (majority).
All family history is full of tragedy and triumph. When researching the lives of slaves and their legacy, remember the words of renowned poet Maya Angelou in Still I Rise:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.