Genealogy research is a journey of discovery that helps us uncover our roots and understand our ancestors. However, when it comes to African American genealogy, the process can be complex and challenging. As a passionate genealogist, I have dedicated myself to the task of documenting the descendants of enslaved laborers, focusing not only on the direct line but also on the entire family. Documenting the descendants of enslaved laborers is a challenging yet rewarding endeavor. This type of research requires persistence, creativity, and collaboration to overcome the barriers inherent in African American genealogy research. By focusing on the entire family, rather than just the direct line, we can help reconnect families that have been separated by the tragic history of slavery. With continued dedication and effort, we can piece together the stories of these resilient individuals and honor their legacy. My approach ensures that no one is left behind and helps to reconnect families that were once torn apart. In this blog post, I will share some of the challenges faced when conducting African American genealogy research, as well as some of the successes I’ve achieved along the way including some of the documents/collections I and others, have found most useful.
Here I will share three challenges of African American Genealogy Research:
- Scarcity of and Access to Records: one of the most significant challenges in conducting African American genealogy research is the scarcity and access to the records. Before the Civil War, enslaved individuals were considered property and not typically included in official records, such as birth and death certificates. This lack of documentation makes it difficult to trace ancestry and establish connections between individuals. The access to records would be for us to engage with the descendants of the slave holder. They literally could be holding records about someone’s family. The holding on takes on some fear that someone will take or claim something from them, shame, and embarrassment.
- Incomplete or Inaccurate Information: even when records exist, they can be incomplete or inaccurate. Enslaved people often did not have surnames, and names might have been changed or misspelled over time. Additionally, ages and birthplaces were often estimated, leading to discrepancies in the information provided.
- Fragmented Families: the harsh reality of slavery is that families were frequently separated and sold to different owners and sold multiple times. This makes it challenging to trace family connections and reconstruct a complete family tree.
Here are some of my successes with African American Genealogy Slave Era Research:
- Oral Histories: oral histories have proven to be a valuable resource for African American genealogy research. Stories passed down through generations can provide clues about family connections, locations, and even the names of enslaved ancestors. Recording and preserving these oral histories is a crucial part of reconnecting families.
- Community Collaboration: collaborating with other researchers and descendants of enslaved laborers can lead to valuable discoveries. Sharing resources, exchanging information, and supporting each other’s research efforts can help uncover new connections and piece together family histories. I engage with the community activities of the nonprofit group called Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA (https://www.descendantsuva.org)
- Exploring Alternative Resources: to overcome the challenges of scarce or incomplete records, researchers must think creatively and explore alternative resources. Some of these resources include:
- Freedmen’s Bureau records (my favorite) & Freedman’s Bank records: These post-Civil War documents contain information about formerly enslaved individuals and their families. Both collections are available on familysearch.org and ancestry.com
- Slave schedules: Found in the 1850 and 1860 Federal Censuses, these records list enslaved people by the name of the slave owner. They are only listed by gender, age, and race. It’s critical to understand who was the slave holder, the overseer, along with the location, etc. Using the schedules will not give individual enslaved names, but you might be able to pickup other clues, etc from the schedules. One of my genealogy buddies, Renate Yarborough Sanders did an excellent presentation on Legacy familytreewebinars if you are a member. It is well worth watching called: “Tick Marks and Number Counts: Understanding and Using the Slave Schedules”. Both collections are available on familysearch.org and ancestry.com
- Wills and probate records: These documents can provide clues about enslaved individuals, their families, and their relationships with slave owners. It is very important to conduct research at the “local level” where you know your ancestors were. The local level includes the courthouses, local libraries, historical societies and genealogy groups and whoever is also in the neighborhood.
- Church records: also at the local level, baptismal, marriage, and burial records can offer valuable insights into the lives of enslaved individuals and their families.
Documenting the descendants of enslaved laborers is a challenging yet rewarding endeavor. It requires persistence, creativity, and collaboration to overcome the barriers inherent in African American genealogy research. By focusing on the entire family, rather than just the direct line, we can help reconnect families that have been separated by the tragic history of slavery.
It is important to recognize that the impact of slavery extended beyond direct descendants to the whole family and the community at large. This broader perspective should be considered when discussing reparations or other measures to address the historical injustices of slavery in this country. States or entities considering reparations must acknowledge that the consequences of slavery have reverberated across generations, affecting not only direct descendants but also their extended families and communities. (I hope folks considering reparations reads this)
With continued dedication and effort, we can piece together the stories of these resilient individuals and honor their legacy. By doing so, we can better understand the far-reaching effects of slavery and work together to heal the wounds of the past.
Memorial to enslaved laborers at UVA: https://slavery.virginia.edu/memorial-for-enslaved-laborers/
My new twitter name is TheRealFamilytreegirl @TFamilytreegirl
On Facebook: Finding Enslaved Laborers at UVA: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100063649637247
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