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* African-American

The overwhelming majority of Americans of African ancestry are descendants of slaves forcibly brought to the New World during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of these slaves were from peoples living within 300 miles of the Atlantic coast between the Congo and Gambia rivers in East Africa. In addition, since the end of the Second World War, a significant number of people of African ancestry have emigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean, where their ancestors were also slaves (primarily at the hands of the British, Dutch, and French).

Since most tribal history in Africa was recorded by oral tradition rather than written down, actually tracing one's roots in Africa can be an extremely difficult task, but not impossible. Alex Haley, the author of Roots was able to trace his ancestors all the way back to the African continent. By examining records of slave sales and slave advertisements, many people may be able to trace their family history all the way back to the original arrival of their ancestors in America.

Contacts and Sources

Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society
P.O. Box 73086
Washington, D.C. 20056
Publications: Journal, AAHGS News
Web site:

African American Genealogy Group
P.O. Box 1798
Philadelphia, PA 19105-1798
Telephone: (215) 572-6063
Web site:

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Blvd.
New York, NY 10037-1801
Telephone: (212) 491-2200

Web Sites

The World Wide Web offers an enormous number of sites dedicated to African-American history, culture, and genealogy. Rather than try to list them all here, we've chosen a select few that are good starting points.
In Helpful Web Sites, you can find links to useful resources about:
Christine's Genealogy Website
Christine's is a good general African-American research Web site. It offers a wide variety of information, from selected lists of African-Americans in U.S. census records to freedmen's bureau records, slave entries in wills, and links to museums, libraries, and historical societies that have African-American collections.
The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS)
Use this Web site to find out in which unit a particular soldier of African descent served. You simply type in the soldier's name, and the database shows you the matching records. For more common names, the searches can take some time, and of course if there are multiple individuals with the same name, you still must determine which individual is actually your ancestor, but it is a good starting place. It also includes histories of 180 United States Colored Troops units/regiments.
Colonial Williamsburg
The Colonial Williamsburg site gives general information about Colonial life and includes a selection of articles about African-Americans.
American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology
As described on this site: "...Each narrative taken alone offers a fragmentary, microcosmic representation of slave life. Read together, they offer a sweeping composite view of slavery in North America, allowing us to explore some of the most compelling themes of nineteenth-century slavery, including labor, resistance and flight, family life, relations with masters, and religious belief."
The African-American Mosaic A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture
The Library of Congress has a large collection of materials relating to African-American life in the United States. This Web site gives an overview of what they offer.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
The collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture includes materials about Blacks living all over the world, including the United States. In particular, they are strong in the history of Harlem and Blacks in New York and the Northeast.

Books and CDs

Below is a sampling of early colonial newspapers that published slave advertisements. From them you may be able to find information about your own ancestors.

  • Boston Independent Advertiser
  • Connecticut Gazette
  • The Georgia Gazette or Independent Register
  • The Guardian of Freedom (Frankfort, Kentucky)
  • Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser
  • Missouri Republican
  • Mobile Gazette
  • The New England Journal
  • The New Jersey Journal
  • New Orleans Advertiser and Prices Current
  • New York Gazette
  • New York Weekly Journal
  • New York Weekly Post Boy
  • The Norfolk Intelligencer
  • North Carolina Gazette
  • The Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser
  • Virginia Gazette
Books such as those listed below may be able to help you locate the newspapers that you are seeking.
  • The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, by Penn I. Garland
    Reviews African-American magazines and newspapers published between 1827 and 1891.
  • Bibliographic Checklist of African-American Newspapers, by Barbara K. Henritze
    A list of approximately 5,500 African American newspapers that have been identified in all major bibliographic sources, including newspaper directories, union lists, finding aids, African American bibliographies, yearbooks, and more. It is searchable by geographic region, time period, and title.
  • Sesquicentennial 1827-1977: Black press handbook, 1977
  • Encyclopedic Directory of Ethnic Newspapers and Periodicals, by Lubomyr R. Wynar

In addition to slave advertisements, plantation books may be excellent sources. Also, since slaves were considered property, you may find records of them in deed books and the probate records of their owners. You may also want to look into Slave Genealogy: A Research Guide with Case Studies by David H. Streets.

Post-1864 Research

For individuals who lived after 1864, you can generally use the same procedures as for any other group: look for census records, vital records, and family sources. Many, but not all, former slaves took the surname of their owners upon emancipation. Some tried different names before settling on one. Also, don't forget to check Civil War indexes, as many former slaves served in the military.'s CD 165 provides an index of African-Americans who were enumerated in the 1870 U.S. Census (the first Census in which African-Americans were included as citizens).

It is also possible that your ancestors were prominent in the affairs of the African-American community in the United States. As a result, we strongly recommend that you consider searching back issues of the appropriate African-American newspapers (and, of course, general newspapers for the time period after African-Americans began to receive appropriate coverage). The four books listed above may help you locate a newspaper that was published in the area where your ancestor lived.

Innumerable books have been written on the African American experience in the United States. Of particular genealogical value is the printed catalog Afro-Americana, 1553-1906, published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which includes many valuable historical resources. Other helpful books include Black Genealogy by Charles L. Blockson and Ron Fry and Ethnic Genealogy: A Research Guide, edited by Jessie Carney Smith. These books have information about both pre- and post-1864 research.

For some tips on researching abroad, see the topic All about international resources.

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