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 slave owner.
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 additional information.
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.
Tony Burroughs is an internationally known genealogist, author, teacher, and lecturer. He teaches genealogy at Chicago State University and is the author of Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree. Mr. Burroughs has been interviewed many times on radio and television Appeared as a guest expert in the PBS series Ancestors CBS Sunday Morning, CBS News, ABC World New Tonight, & BET Nightly News. In 1996 he received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Genealogical Society and co-authored the African-American Genealogical Sourcebook (Gale Research 1995).
Mr. Burroughs has been practicing genealogy for twenty years, having traced two family lines back seven generations. He has extensive experience in libraries, archives, historical societies and county courthouses. He has conducted the African-American genealogy workshop at the National Archives — Great Lakes Region for six years. He also lectures at local, state and national genealogical conferences and has given half-day and full-day workshops in over a dozen cities. He was the James Dent Walker Memorial Lecturer in Richmond, Virginia in October 1994. His talks are on all aspects of American Genealogy and African-American Genealogy.
Mr. Burroughs is a graduate of the National Institute of Genealogical Research in Washington, D.C. and the Institute of Genealogy and History at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is past president of the Afro-American Genealogical & Historical Society of Chicago, Inc. and past curator of the African-American Genealogy Collection at the Avalon Branch of the Chicago Public Library. He also served on the board of directors for the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society in Washington, D.C.