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Jul 02, 2017

Finding and Telling the African American Family Story: Beginning the Genealogy Journey

Six Generations

Finding and Telling the African American Family Story: Beginning the Genealogy Journey

Many people are inspired by the recent programs on television reflecting people who have a chance to learn their family history. Yet, there is a feeling among many people that the black family can’t be easily researched. But the real truth is that it can be done, and one can go back with the right methods, over 150 years in their family history! And with careful strategy, even further back in time.

Most importantly it should be remembered that everyone leaves a record behind them. There is a paper trail to follow on most individuals, even those who were once enslaved. Unless someone has totally lived “off the grid” with no contact with anyone, then there is a record that will provide clues to the past. The key is to find the right documents to get started, and then connect the dots taking you further back in time.

Getting Started – What Documents Should You Find?

Family Records-Family artifacts, obituaries, photo albums, old licenses, insurance papers, diplomas are useful when the beginner is seeking some general info on elders in the family.

Vital Records–Birth, Death and Marriage Records
Census Record–Federal census records captured the family every 10 years
Courthouse Records–Information about property, taxes, and court case are useful.
Land Records-Property ownership can reveal useful info on the life and lifestyle of the family.
Local Records-School records, cemetery records, church records are all wonderful sources of data.

Many beginning genealogists have a strong interest in going online to find the family history, and are inspired after watching the many television programs where people uncover wonderful details about the past with a click of the computer. But the fact is, many are not certain what to look for when going online for the first time, and after signing onto the large online databases whether they are free or subscription the question arises immediately—“what should I look for?”

This is a quick outline of the many resources that you can find whether you go online, or make that first trip to the courthouse to get started.

Start at Home: Family Records

Many clues to the family past are right there at home, and with arm’s reach. Old photos, letters, insurance papers, obituaries, licenses and more are clues to study that will direct you to your family’s past. They should become a launching pad to take the research to another level.

Vital Records
The documents that record the three critical events in one’s life are often referred to as “vital” records. There are primarily three such record types: “Birth”, “Marriage”, & “Death”. Regardless of what state your ancestors are from-there are records that record these three events in the life of everyone. Most states have an “Office of Vital Records” and there you will find many of these records. Those offices are located in the state capital, and they maintain the births, marriages and deaths of the party, if those vital events occurred in that state. They can be found in many states at the state’s historical archives. But—many places also reflect the same records on the county level. So a trip to the county courthouse may also reveal many wonderful records about the family line. Note that the Vital Records in other states can be found usually in the state capital. Some places maintain those records in the state archives building and other states will house those records, in a separate facility.

If you are seeking records such as death certificates, the state archives is particularly useful for most records that are considered “old” record, meaning 50 years or older. This policy can vary from one state to another. It is important to realize that one must obtain the record from the state in which the event occurred. If an ancestor was born in 1925 in Florida, and in 1946 got married in Georgia, and then passed away in South Carolina, for each of those events, the vital records office of the state where the event occurred will be the source of the record.

Census Records
Every ten years since 1790, the United States has collected data on the population listing all free persons living within each state. For the purpose of protecting privacy, data from the census forms, are sealed form the public for 72 years, but any census records prior to that are in the public domain and can be easily accessed. So at present, the most recent census records to explore are those from the 1940 census. The records from prior years are easily found online and on microfilm. Online sites like Ancestry, Family Search and Find My Past are great places to look at census records.

Courthouse Records
At some time you will want to visit the local county courthouse. Tax records, land records, marriage records, and more can be found there. In addition, one can find probate records, and chancery court records that can reveal little known facts about the family that lived there. In some communities, there are also other vital records such as death records kept on hand. If the family owned land, again the courthouse will be the place to visit for essential information. Chancery court records reflect numerous transactions between individuals and their neighbors, and probate records will contain the wills. This is especially useful when researching families once enslaved, as often slave holders listed their slaves by name in their will.

Military Records
Military records can be great sources of information and they are a special area that should be a part of the genealogical search process. The most commonly used records are, World War II Draft Cards, World War I Draft Card, Civil War Service Records from the Civil War, as well as Pension records from the Civil War. If the family was a family of people who were free before 1865 then it is wise to use Pension Records from the War of 1812 War, as well as records from the American Revolution. These are all essential records that may document the family’s military history.

The most popular and revealing records are those of Civil War veterans. With the pension files of African American soldiers these files are especially rich, as they often contain sworn depositions of a soldier seeking a pension—and also that of his widow if cases where she out lived her husband who was a soldier. In many cases, details about the life of a family before freedom can be gleaned from those records. 

For the World Wars, the draft cards can be useful and can share a lot to the researcher about not only the soldier, but also the community. Websites like Fold3 and Ancestry are useful resources to see those draft cards.

Land Records
If your ancestor was a land owner, a great place to document this part of the history will be the court house. Often land patents and early maps can reveal the exact location of the ancestor’s land. But beyond the courthouse, the researcher is encouraged to look to see if an ancestor acquired federal land. Bounty lands were often made available to veterans from early 19th century conflicts. And in the late 1800s the Homestead Act was passed into law in 1862 by President Lincoln. This law encouraged Westward Migration allowing settlers to obtain up to 160 acres of land. The homesteaders paid a small fee, and were required to reside on the land for five consecutive years before obtaining complete ownership of the land. A great online site to explore to find out if one had a homesteader in the family is a website managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The website is .

Hopefully knowing what some of the basic records are, will help the beginning researcher to initiate the process of documenting the family’s history and telling the family story.

By following the paper trail one will find him/herself directed to find many new facts about the family, and the researcher will obtain amazing insights into the history of the family as a whole.

One tip to remember is to utilize all records when documenting a line. Although many people start with the census records, vital records—birth, marriage, and death records, are extremely important, those local records are equally an important. They all connect the family to the local community, and place them in the historical and social context in which the family lived. 

Keep in mind that genealogy is more than collecting names—the goal is to tell the story. And everyone has a story, and there are documents that will assist you in gleaning more information to let that story come forth.

Study the records as a whole—from the personal archives records—papers, photos, news clippings, expired licenses, insurance policies etc., to the outside records—census and local community records.  All will help you piece together that critical story of the family’s history.

About Angela Walton-Raji

Angela Walton-Raji is known nationally for her research and work on Oklahoma Native American records. Her book Black Indian Genealogy Research, African Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes, is the only book of its kind focusing on the unique record sets pertaining to the Oklahoma Freedmen.

A founding member of the well known, website, Ms. Walton-Raji is also a genealogist specializing in information for beginners, via daily and weekly online genealogy chats on She also serves as the host of a weekly genealogy podcast, The African Roots Podcast a number of instructional videos and has been used in recent years as a genealogical consultant on several video documentaries. Ms. Walton-Raji combines her skills as a genealogist with a warm on camera personality that brings comfort to her viewers through and her video channels on YouTube, while providing her viewers with useful information. Her African Roots TV, and Beginning Genealogist channels have both brought new insights to hundreds of viewers nationwide.

Ms. Walton-Raji’s talents have been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, for over a decade. In the 1990s she was a featured speaker at a number of Smithsonian events, and to date, she is the only genealogist in the nation, to present regular genealogy lectures at the National Museum of the American Indian, in both the Washington DC and New York facilities. She was a awarded the honor of presenting a special series of genealogy lectures to coincide with the Exhibition IndiVisible that officially launched in November 2009, and is now traveling throughout the nation.

Beyond her public appearances, she is a published author, host of 3 blogs a 10 year ongoing message board, 3 websites, and she hosts the only weekly podcast devoted to African American genealogy. Her comfort with language and skills in writing, make her well known and well respected in the genealogy community. In the Spring of 2010, she was featured in a in-depth interview with the Smithsonian magazine online. She is an alumnus of the National Institute of Genealogical Research, she has taught in the Samford Institute of Genealogical Research and has spoken at RootsTech, and has been active for many years in the African American Genealogical & Historical Society, where she now serves on the board of the Technology Education Committee. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Romance Languages and a Master of Education. She lives in MD where she continues to research, write and teach.

More From Angela Walton-Raji

Below are instructional videos from Angela Walton-Raji’s website The Beginning Genealogist. You can view all of Angela’s videos on her YouTube channel.

Gathering Your Family’s Oral History

By Angela Walton-Raji
Methods of conducting oral history interviews for beginning genealogists.

Finding Your Family in the Census

By Angela Walton-Raji
Having trouble locating the family in the census? Think Name, Location and People and you might have some success in finding them.

Additional Census Tips

By Angela Walton-Raji
Before delving into the 1800s have you documented your ancestors for each census year in which they lived in the 1900s?