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Obituaries for African Americans

by Tony Burroughs
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Five Places to Find Obituaries
Have you searched for your ancestor's obituary in the thousands of African American newspapers published in the 1800s and 1900s? Find out how to locate these often overlooked resources and what you're likely to learn.

Genealogy begins with recording memories of our childhood and relationships with family members. We record things like: Who lived in the household? What relatives visited on birthdays and holidays; and Where the family traveled to see relatives and friends, among other details.

Next we interview relatives to obtain stories of their childhoods, as well as what they remember of the past, which can extend beyond our memories. We also seek their remembrances of older relatives and ancestors.

After these two important steps are completed, researchers should turn to family records. These are papers lying around the house that family members have saved and placed in scrapbooks, albums, desks, and dresser drawers. These are sometimes things we take for granted, like:

  • driver's licenses
  • insurance papers
  • certificates
  • letters
  • diaries
  • funeral programs
  • obituaries
After researching individual ancestors for weeks, months, or even years, it is a lot of fun and very exciting to locate an obituary for an ancestor. Obituaries are short biographies on recently deceased individuals, usually published in newspapers. They notify the public that a person died and contain basic facts of the person's life and sometimes a wealth of information. When all we have of an ancestor's life is a date and place of birth, death, and marriage, locating an obituary can be very rewarding. An obituary can paint a picture of the ancestor's life and provide the names of other relatives.

You never know if an obituary exists for an ancestor until you search the newspapers. Finding an obituary for an ancestor may sound like finding a needle in a haystack, but if you have a strategy, your search can be productive. Below I will outline a five point strategy for locating obituaries for African Americans.

Start by noting the deceased persons on your Family Group Sheets. Thorough searches should be conducted to locate obituaries for each one of your ancestors. Fortunately, many obituaries were clipped and saved by family members. So the first place to look for obituaries is from family members. When doing oral history, always ask if family members kept any newspaper obituaries. Sometimes they were saved and placed in scrapbooks, photograph albums, purses, dresser drawers, and shoe boxes.

When I started tracing my family history, my Aunt Doris shared an obituary from an ancestor who died in 1927, Ella Batch Simmons. The obituary reveals her date of death, birth date, residence, parents' names, siblings and their residences, children, minister, the name of the church she attended, and the name of the cemetery where she is buried.

If an obituary for a particular ancestor was not saved by family members, but the exact date and place of death is known, an obituary can be obtained directly from an old newspaper in the library. The exact date of death can be determined from death certificates, cemetery records, funeral home records, insurance and pension records, Social Security death records, and sometimes military records. Then newspapers should be searched for an obituary for up to ten days after the death, longer in weekly papers.

Contact the local library where the death occurred and see if they have copies of the newspaper for the location and time period when the death occurred. Old newspapers are usually preserved on microfilm, and also sometimes found in historical societies, archives, and university libraries.

I searched for an obituary for my great-grandfather Morris Burroughs who died in Chicago in 1903. Much to my surprise, there was a notice in the Chicago Tribune. But unfortunately, it was not actually an obituary. It was merely a "Death Notice" compiled from data received from the Board of Health. But it was another piece of evidence I was able to collect, verifying his date and place of death.

Unknown by the average person, there were thousands of newspapers published by African Americans. Fortunately, someone has assembled a list of them. Barbara Henritzie compiled a list of over 5,000 African American newspapers (including some magazines) in, Bibliographic Checklist of African-American Newspapers (GPC, 1995). The checklist identifies newspapers published in hundreds of cities dating back to 1827.

If you identify a newspaper from the Bibliographic Checklist of African-American Newspapers, there are several sources for locating copies of the newspapers. First ask the reference librarian of your local library (or the periodicals librarian) if they have a copy of either, Newspapers in Microform, United States 1948-1972 (Library of Congress, 1973) which lists 34,289 titles held by 843 libraries and forty-eight corporations, or American Newspapers, 1821-1936: A Union List of Files Available in the United States and Canada edited by Winifred Gregory (Kraus reprint, 1967) which lists newspaper holdings of 5,700 depositories. These directories will list locations of thousands of newspapers which may be available on interlibrary loan.

Additionally, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin has been identifying and cataloguing all known copies of African American newspapers that exist in the United States. Contact the State Historical Society (Periodical Department; 816 State Street; Madison, WI 53706) and they'll tell you if they've located a copy, and where you can see it. When their project is completed, the directory will be available in libraries and archives around the country.

In 1953, under the direction of Armistead Scott Pride, director of the Lincoln University School of Journalism (Jefferson City, MO), the Library of Congress microfilmed over 400 hundred African American newspapers. This microfilmed set is titled, Negro Newspapers on Microfilm and is available at many major libraries and research institutions around the country. If it is not available in the library in your area, ask the reference librarian to conduct an OCLC search to determine the nearest location. The collection might be available at a nearby college or university library.

Obituaries can serve another function. If an exact date of death is not known for an ancestor, but a general location and approximate time frame is known, sometimes the exact date and place of death can be revealed in an obituary. In this case, the obituary is not only used to obtain personal information on the deceased, it is used to determine the exact date and place of death.

Locating an obituary for an ancestor without the exact date and place of death is sometimes not as hard as it sounds, especially if you have an index. And we know all genealogists love indexes!

Many indexes of local newspapers were created and they are a gold mine for genealogists. There are indexes of local newspapers and African American newspapers. Ten current African American newspapers are indexed in Black Newspapers Index edited by Beth Haendiges and published by UMI. It covers 1985 to the present. Prior to 1985 the index was published by Bell and Howell Co. and titled, Index to Black Newspapers which covered 1977 to 1984.

Mary Mace Spradling's In Black and White (Gale Research, 1980, 2 volumes and Supplement) references over 21,000 African American individuals and groups appearing in newspapers, magazines, books and other publications. Although it consists primarily of people making notable contributions, and obituaries are not cited specifically, it is well worth a look.

Early newspaper indexing of African Americans was conducted by James de T. Abajian, a San Francisco librarian when he edited, Blacks in Selected Newspapers, Censuses, and Other Sources: An Index to Names and Subjects. This three volume set indexes African Americans appearing in forty-three newspapers and thirteen periodicals from 1842 to 1948. Mr. Abajian lived in San Francisco, California and most of the newspapers were published in the West, but a few eastern publications are included. I found two Pennsylvania ancestors listed from the Cleveland Gazette. These were deaths occurring in Pennsylvania but reported in an Ohio newspaper! So there didn't even have to be a newspaper published in the town or area your ancestor lived in to have an obituary in a newspaper. A two-volume supplement to Abajian's index was published in 1985.

To go back even further, Donald Jacobs indexed four Black newspapers from 1827 to 1841 in, Antebellum Black Newspapers: Indices to NY Freedom's Journal 1827-1829, The Rights of All 1829, Weekly Advocate 1837, and The Colored American 1837-1841, (Greenwood Press, 1976). Of course most of these are so early they won't be of current help for most people. But some African American lineages with free northern roots before the Civil War are easily extended into this period. The Kaiser Index to Black Resources, 1948 - 1986 (Carlson Publishing, 1992) indexes a few obituaries, but most are of prominent persons.

In addition to general newspaper indexes, there are also indexes exclusively of obituaries in newspapers. Lori Husband, an African American genealogist in Chicago, indexed obituaries of African Americans appearing in the Chicago Defender from 1910 to 1920. This is a tremendous source and now work has begun on the next ten years of the Chicago Defender. Researchers are needed to index obituaries in other African American newspapers. The work is not difficult, it's just time consuming and meticulous work. But it will make a wonderful contribution to the field of genealogy and will assist many genealogists and historians beyond our lifetime.

The Journal of Negro History also published obituaries of who they called, "Leaders of the Negro race." An index of 200 obituaries of these African Americans was published in volume 57 (October 1972, 447-454).

Betty M. Jarboe compiled a list of hundreds of published obituaries, divided by states in, Obituaries: A Guide to Sources (G. K. Hall, second ed. 1989). Although not all sources listed are obituaries, (she includes marriages and biographies) she frequently mentions obituaries for African Americans. And, Anita Check Milner edited a three volume set titled, Newspaper Indexes: A Location and Subject Guide for Researchers (Scarecrow, 1977-82). It is a state-by-state listing of newspapers which have been indexed and the location of the index files.

Another tremendous, albeit painful, source for African American obituaries, are records of lynchings. There were thousands of African Americans lynched or brutally murdered during the period between the Civil War and the 1960's. Ralph Ginsburg compiled a list of 5,000 lynchings occurring in the United States (100 Years of Lynchings, Black Classic Press reprint, 1988). All the lynchings are listed alphabetically by state, many of which are accompanied by newspaper articles of the incident. Whereas many of the articles are not actually obituaries, they are newspaper records of deaths and many list relatives' names and describe the circumstances of the lynching.

Often times we neglect, or try to forget, unpleasant experiences in the past, but this is one grim reminder. We often run into stone walls when trying to get oral history from relatives, and this is sometimes the reason. A family member being lynched is a horrible tragedy and one that can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So it is conceivable why it might be difficult getting an older relative to talk about a tragic event. Fortunately, the records survived because they can explain family situations and circumstances. Many an African American family moved North because a relative or neighbor was lynched or murdered.

A fourth source for obituaries are "newspaper clipping files." Some libraries, archives and historical societies created files of newspaper clippings. The librarians, or volunteers, searched newspapers and clipped obituaries and general news items and then placed the clippings in files or in scrapbooks. Sometimes these clippings were microfilmed.

The largest African American clipping file is the Tuskegee Institute Newspaper Clipping Files. Students at Tuskegee Institute, in Tuskegee, Alabama, regularly clipped articles from newspapers mentioning African Americans. Arthur Ashe based much of his heralded series, African Americans in Sport, on information obtained from the Tuskegee clipping files.

Fortunately for African American genealogists, the collection has been microfilmed and there are four reels of film containing obituaries from 1912 to 1966 (Necrology File; there are also 15 reels of lynchings from 1899 to 1966). Hampton University in Virginia also created a clipping file (Index to Hampton University Newspaper Clipping File, Nicholas Natanson ed. Chadwyck-Healey, 1990) and the Nicholas Natanson, a branch of the Nicholas Natanson, also maintained a clipping file (Index to the Schomburg Clipping File, Chadwyck-Healey, 1986). There are many subjects in the index to the clipping files, but unfortunately none are titled obituaries, deaths, or necrology.

And lastly, obituaries can be obtained directly from some libraries, archives, museums, historical societies and genealogical societies. Many of these institutions index and clip obituaries mentioning people in their local communities. So it is always wise to consult the local institution in the area where your ancestors lived to see if they maintain an obituary file or index of the local paper.

One of my great-grandfathers was a Buffalo Soldier. After he mustered out of the service, he worked at Fort Robinson in Nebraska. When I contacted the curator at Fort Robinson, I learned they had an obituary file. He checked the file and located an obituary for my ancestor, published in the local paper in 1905. Even though I already knew a lot about this ancestor (from family members, census records, tax records and military records) this obituary gave me plenty of new information, found nowhere else.

I also contacted the public library in Uniontown, Pennsylvania when I learned of their obituary file index. Fortunately they had a listing for my great-great-great grandfather's brother, who was said to have lived to be over one hundred years old. They called him "Old Uncle Davie." I calculated he died between 1900 and 1910. The obituary confirmed he died in 1903. But the amazing thing was, the obituary stated he was the "oldest man living in Pennsylvania at 107!"

Obituaries will often lead to other genealogical sources. When things like occupations, religion, military service and similar details are mentioned, be sure to follow up research in these new sources.

Conclusion

Obituaries can add life to your ancestors, and sometimes provide a wealth of information. They can be a lot of fun, and they're not hard to research. But you must make a concerted and exhaustive effort to look for them. And don't just look in the African American newspapers and indexes. Your ancestor could be listed in the local newspaper, like some of mine. There are also religious newspapers that should be consulted. The AME Christian Recorder is an excellent source. I also located an excellent obituary index for Southern Christian Advocate at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. It contained obituaries for the slave owning families I'm researching.

To summarize, five sources for locating obituaries for ancestors are:

  1. Family records
  2. Directly from newspapers (local and African American)
  3. Newspaper and obituary indexes
  4. Newspaper clipping files
  5. Obituary files in libraries, historical societies and museums

All the information located in an obituary may not be accurate and true. Like any genealogical source, details should be verified with other records. Normally the informant for the source of the information is not given; so it is by definition, a secondary source, not a primary record.

Obituaries are a source that should be researched by all beginning and intermediate genealogists. You'll be glad you did. Those of you who call yourself advanced genealogists, and haven't checked out this source, I won't tell.


About the Author
Tony Burroughs is an internationally known genealogist, author, teacher, and lecturer. He teaches genealogy at Chicago State University and is the president of Black Roots, a genealogy service and supply company. Mr. Burroughs has been interviewed many times on radio and television and will be the African American genealogy expert in the public television series Ancestors. 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.

This is a copyrighted article by Tony Burroughs and distribution in any form without the express written permission of the author is prohibited.

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