Beginning a new venture can be either fun or frustrating. In any sport,
game, hobby, or endeavor, you do not have to read a book, take a class,
or have a tutor to learn a new skill. The old method of trial and error
still works. This is true in genealogy as well as other disciplines. So
I would never be one to say there is only one way to do genealogy and
if you don't do it that way you won't be successful. But to me, trial
and error can be very frustrating.
Experience has shown that if you learn the fundamentals in a new area
and follow them, you will likely become more successful and at a faster
pace. You can benefit from my mistakes and those of other genealogists.
Of course, if you only believed in the trial-and-error method, you probably
wouldn't be reading this book.
Through solving major problems of my own, pondering the problems of others,
and studying genealogy and African American history, I have developed
six distinct phases of African American genealogy. If you understand and
master each phase before proceeding to the next one, I believe you will
be very successful.
Remember that fundamental genealogy starts from the known and proceeds
to the unknown, one generation at a time. You may have the name of an
old ancestor, perhaps a great-great-grandparent who was a slave. You may
or may not know much about this ancestor. If you haven't completed the
stages that lead back to this ancestor, you are not prepared to research
that ancestor. You will not have enough information to be successful.
If you thoroughly cover these phases and steps, you will pick up information
along the way that will be essential in researching this ancestor. You
will then be in a much better position to research that ancestor when
you get your research back that far.
The Six Phases of African American Genealogy
- Gather Oral History and Family Records
- Research the Family to 1870
- Identify the Last Slave Owner
- Research the Slave Owner and Slavery
- Go Back to Africa
- Research Canada and the Caribbean
Phase I Gather Oral History and Family Records
We've said genealogy starts with ourselves and proceeds backward. You
are the first link in your family tree. So genealogy begins with recalling
and recording things about yourself and beginning to write your autobiography.
Next you'll need to interview your parents and other older relatives,
pumping them for information. You'll then look at things lying around
the house in trunks, attics, basements, bookcases, and shoe boxes that
can add to knowledge of your family tree. Things like family papers, records,
photos, and souvenirs. To sort out all this data, you'll organize it into
genealogy charts that trace bloodlines and group people in family units.
All these things are parts of beginning genealogy.
Phase II Research the Family to 1870
After you exhaust sources at home, you'll venture out to locate records
in the community. The objective is to research your family back to 1870.
This is a key date because most African Americans were enslaved prior
to the Civil War. But not all African Americans were enslaved before the
Civil War. There were more than 200,000 free Blacks in the North and another
200,000 free in the South prior to the Civil War. Unfortunately, many
genealogists assume their ancestors were slaves and run into a brick wall
because their ancestors were actually free prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.
Additional beginning sources include records in cemeteries and funeral
homes, birth and death certificates, marriage and divorce records, obituaries,
published biographies and family histories, old city directories and telephone
directories, Social Security records, and U.S. Census records.
Intermediate sources include records of wills, probates, estates, real
estate, taxes, voter registrations, schools, churches, places of employment,
military service, and civil and criminal courts. The intermediate phase
also includes studying U.S. history, African American history, local history,
and military history.
Phase III Identify the Last Slave Owner
Once researchers have thoroughly completed the above records and traced
their pedigree to 1870, they've arrived at the advanced stage of research.
Unfortunately, many more people think they are there before they actually
are. Just because you have identified an ancestor who lived in 1870 or
earlier does not mean you have qualified for the advanced stage. Only
after you have thoroughly exhausted the records and historical research
listed above have you progressed to the advanced stage.
Once here, if your ancestors were enslaved, you have to identify the
name of the last slave owner. This may sound unusual because we've all
been led to believe our surnames came from the slave owner. But remember,
genealogy is based on fact, not assumptions and rumor. Most African Americans
are not as fortunate as Alex Haley to have the name of the slave owner
passed down from generation to generation. They will have to look to specific
sources to identify who was the last slave owner prior to emancipation.
Even if the name of the slave owner has been passed down through the oral
history of your family, you'll need to search for documentary evidence
to verify it. Slave genealogy cannot be done without the name of the former
You'll need to study the history of Reconstruction and then research
Reconstruction-era sources for evidence of your ancestors and records
that identify the name of the last slave owner. You'll also need to study
Civil War history and records generated by the Civil War.
Phase IV Research the Slave Owner and Slavery
Once the name of the last slave owner is identified, the next step is
to research the history of slavery and understand the conditions, laws,
customs, and practices that governed slavery and enslaved Africans. This
subject is not taught in detail in school, so you must study it. Then
you need to research the slave owner to see what he did with his property,
because slaves were property bought, sold, and traded like hogs,
cattle, and tools. At this point you are doing the genealogy of the slave
owner as well as the genealogy of the slave. It's double work.
Phase V Go Back to Africa
The next phase is to look for clues and mentions of slave origins in
Africa. Again, you will have to look for bits and pieces of evidence.
You cannot rely on family rumors or facial features that have been altered
through several generations and many years of evolution and intermixing
with other races. Many people of African descent have been here for over
three hundred years. You'll need to study the slave trade and the Middle
Passage, which brought slaves from Africa to America.
Phase VI Research Canada and the Caribbean
Some of you will discover your ancestors did not come to America directly
from Africa; they came from the Caribbean. So you'll need to study the
migrations of enslaved Africans from Africa to the Caribbean to America.
You'll then search for records indicating origins in the Caribbean and
then from Africa to the Caribbean.
You may discover your ancestors came to the United States from Canada.
You'll have to study the Underground Railroad and trace your ancestors
back and forth across the border and then to Africa or the Caribbean.
But you must study the history before searching for your ancestors.
To be most successful, these steps, or fundamentals, should be followed
in sequence. I know some of you may already have done one or two of the
items on this list. For example, some of you may already have talked to
older relatives. You may already know three, four, or five generations
of your family history from family discussions or from attending family
reunions. That is good because you will need that information. You have
a head start. Some of you may even have been to the National Archives
to research census records but not completed earlier steps, such as obtaining
birth and death certificates. Even though you have a head start on some
research, you should use these fundamentals. You should read each chapter
in detail because it will probably mention things you have not done, things
you didn't fully understand, or things you never even thought about. You
will probably need to go back to one of your earlier sources to obtain
When researchers get stuck researching an ancestor, it is often the result
of skipping over fundamental steps. Others might not have been thorough
in completing various steps. The process is very similar to spring training
in professional baseball. Players learn the fundamentals and practice
executing them perfectly, over and over again. No matter how experienced
a ball player is, every spring he reports to camp and repeats the fundamentals.