African American genealogy is challenging and stressful. With the lack of records to due slavery, things can almost seem impossible, but this type of research is not impossible and having some tools to assist in the research process can make finding ancestors before 1870 slightly easier.
People become interested in genealogy for various reasons. African American genealogy is a special type of genealogy because we can't all go back to the 1500s. It takes a level of patience, determination, and understanding, in order to go on such a vigorous hunt.
Identify what you want to learn; either about one particular ancestor or several. Perhaps you are trying to find a possible slave master, no matter what the goal(s), list all expectations. (For example: One of my goals was to identify the family who may have owned my 4th great-grandfather, Sam Cahee).
Gather all charts and logs that will help you along your research journey. Figure out which method of organization works best for you. You don’t want to lose any valuable information or have to repeat research steps because you forgot to document.
Starting with yourself, write down everything you know. Write down names, relationships, and dates associated with anyone involved. This will help you when you begin trying to talk to relatives or people who may be affiliated with your ancestor(s).
View some practice interviews and think about questions to ask your relatives. Write down your questions, create a list of people to talk to, and gather all materials needed for conducting the interviews (recorder, paper, pen/pencil). Go out and interview.
Based on the information you and the information you collected by talking to other individuals, create a timeline of events and begin building your family tree – if you haven’t already. While creating your timeline, at certain events, mark which records may be useful.
Brick walls may be things you are missing or places where you feel you may get stuck. (For example: My identifiable brick walls are often prior to 1870-1880). Make notes of where you feel you may have trouble.
A research plan is based on the misunderstandings and expectations.
Familiarize yourself with the history of African Americans in the United States. In addition, get to know the community your ancestors lived in and the types of events that were taking place that may have impacted your ancestor(s).
Try to gain knowledge on whether or not your ancestors changed their names due to trying to rid themselves of the evils of slavery, or if they kept the surnames of their slave masters. This may be tricky, but not impossible. What is your family history lore?
Availability of records and resources:
Determine which records and resources are available and understand the flaws in them. Often, the flaw may be the information cannot be fully believed.
This research guide is for the New England Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS-NE). The mission statement of the society is that the primary purpose of the New England Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc. (AAHGS-NE) is to encourage African-Americans in all walks of life – students, young adults, and retired persons – to pursue investigation of their family heritage. Some of the objectives include: promoting the study of Afro-American history, embarking on our own journey of our family heritage, and encouraging others to discover their family heritage and to help educate them on how to do it.
AAHGS-NE consists of both paying and non-paying members. While the member community is predominantly African American and African descent, some of the members are of other ethnic backgrounds interested in learning about African American history and genealogical research.
This particular pathfinder is for those interested in trying to conduct research on African American history and genealogy. After the airing of Roots, the televised mini-series based on the novel written by Alex Haley, interest in African American genealogy grew. With more media attention surrounding genealogy, self-discovery, and ancestral DNA testing today, the community of this research is even more present. The problem that most commonly arises during the research process is trying to overcome the 1870 brick wall. Due to the enslavement of Africans and African Americans, many records don’t exist. As a result, we must find loopholes and cracks in order to pinpoint our ancestors. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that for some of us, certain lineages cannot be researched beyond 1870, but that conclusion can only be made after making an attempt.
This work is dedicated to helping others understand the complexities of African American genealogy research. In showing the issues, I will also offer various avenues to research in order to attack the 1870 brick wall. I will provide information about starting the research process that is similar across all aspects of genealogy research, as well as providing information more specific to African American genealogy.