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Oct 23, 2017

African American Genealogy: How to Find the Maiden Name

Marriage Announcement

One of the most frustrating parts about genealogy research is not knowing an ancestor’s maiden name.  It puts you at a standstill when trying to determine who her parents are.  We have some suggestions for you to try if you are stuck without any idea what your ancestor’s maiden name is.


Look for your ancestor’s first and last name in the newspaper. Perhaps you will discover an obituary, probate record, or some other article that mentions a male sibling or cousin. Search for the sibling or cousin on the census to see if she turns up in the household as well.

The actual marriage announcement for Arthur Kidd and Josephene Jackson appeared in The Dillon Herald on 14 December 1911. Knowing the bride’s surname makes it easier to search for her on the 1910 Census:

Marriage Announcement
The Dillon Herald. (Dillon, S.C.) 1894-????, December 14, 1911,
Image provided by University of South Carolina; Columbia, SC
Persistent link:

US Census

Search for your female ancestor starting with the most recent census and moving back every ten years searching each available census. Pay close attention to people living next door. You might be lucky enough to trace them back to the point they are home with their parents. We have often discovered the parents of female ancestors living next door on the census. In the example below, The daughters of Lucy and Henry Nelms (Josie and Ora) are living next door to their parents.

Nelms Census Record
“United States Census, 1920,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 14 December 2015), Arkansas > Poinsett > Bolivar > ED 198 > image 15 of 20; citing NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

Church Records

Church records are a key place for learning more about surnames and family groups. Look for the names of family members among church histories in public libraries and in church anniversary books. University libraries may also have church histories or records. We had an experience where we even researched the former clergymen associated with Bethel AME Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Rev. E. A. Adams was the bishop of the church at the time the Vance family attended. Among his records in the South Caroliniana Library on the campus of University of South Carolina in Columbia were the tithing and service records of various members including members of the Vance family. Many women who were not married yet were listed with their parents and siblings.

You must be diligent in your search for church records because they may often be in a place completely different than anticipated. The Second African Baptist Church (Savannah, Ga.) records 1812-1979 are available on microfilm through the New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts Division.

The various types of records in this collection giving great opportunities for discovering maiden names include:

  • Church Minutes
  • Legal Documents
  • Church Rolls
  • Minute Books and Annual Reports
  • Financial Records
  • Sunday School Records
  • Church Organizations’ Minutes and Church History
  • Printed Matter
  • Miscellaneous

Sharpen the Saw

Search for one of the resource types above to find a mention of your ancestor’s surname. Share your findings on the Facebook post for this article.