African American genealogy is a fascinating topic but it can be hard to know where to find records. This guide will give an overview of resources to get you started on tracing your family lineage.
Family members, family stories, and pictures & documents you already have are the best place to start.
Search Census Records (available up to 1940), Deeds, Probate, Court, Business and Military Records. Don’t forget about city directories and family papers, like diaries and correspondence!
Census Records—Beginning in 1870, people of color were included in the U.S. Census with full population description. Note: Due to fire at the National Archives, the 1890 Census is largely destroyed. Available on Ancestry.com.
Deeds, Probate, and Court Records - Available at the Madison County Records Center
Freedmen's Bureau and Freedmen’s Bank Records—Includes description of individuals and sometimes their family. Available at Freedmensbureau.com and Ancestry.com.
TIP: Emancipation occured in 1863.
Census Records - Search under ancestor's name (if free person)
1860 Federal Slave Schedule—Tally marks under particular age groups, sex, and color (rarely names). Search by the name of white slave owners.
Deeds, Probate, Court, and Business Records—
Post-emancipation, you will find black persons under their own names. See next section for details on pre-emancipation.
Military Records—People of color fought for both the Union and Confederacy. You can find records for the “United States Colored Troops” (Union), as well as employment records within the military (Confederate & Union). Often if a black person fought for the Confederacy, it was forced servitude under a white owner who had joined the military. Available on Fold3.com.
1850s and older
Pre-1850, slaves (if included) were tallied by sex and age along with other free white persons of the household. If your ancestor was enslaved, search by the name of the white owner. If your ancestor was a free person, search by their name.
1850 Federal Slave Schedule—Tally marks under particular age groups, sex, and color (rarely names). Search by the name of the white owner.
Deeds of white persons—Deeds are legal documents that represent transfer of property (including: land; buildings; furnishings; and enslaved individuals, often along with their physical description and age.)
Probate Records of white persons— Similar to deeds, wills, inventories, and settlements are legal documents that also transfer property.
Court Records of white AND black persons—Similar to deeds and probate, enslaved individuals will show up in court settlements. Additionally, both free and enslaved individuals will appear as defendants and plaintiffs.
Business Records of white persons—This includes plantation and farm records (family papers), in addition to store and trade records. Look particularly at records of sale, inventories, and registers.
Family Papers of white persons—This includes correspondence and diaries. Women in particular tend to write about daily details around the home, including enslaved individuals.
Free Black Communities—Look for church records, business records, court records, probate, deeds, etc. You may also want to look at these books:
The Special Collections Department is always available to answer questions and offer suggestions on furthering your research. Local genealogy groups and online forums are also a great way to meet fellow researchers and learn more about the wonderful world of genealogy.