African American Genealogy Research

In celebration of African American History Month we’re taking a look at African American genealogy research this month.  Researching your African American family history is conducted using the steps and resources outlined in this post from January until you work your way beyond the 1870 Federal Census.  Once you reach the years prior to 1870 it becomes more challenging.  Tony Burroughs, internationally known genealogist, author, former genealogy instructor at Chicago State University and featured expert on PBS’ Ancestors, has this to say about researching prior to 1870:

Once here, if your ancestors were enslaved, you have to identify the name of the last slave owner.  This may sound unusual because we’ve all been led to believe our surnames came from the slave owner.  But remember, genealogy is based on fact, not assumptions and rumor. 

Even if the name of the slave owner has been passed down through the oral history of your family, you’ll need to search for documentary evidence to verify it. (1) 

This is why gathering information from your family members, collecting vital records, obituaries, family photos, family stories and anything else that might give you clues is so essential.  Read this article by Mr. Burroughs for an idea of what to expect when researching your African American genealogy, and for more detailed guidance check out his book, Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree or the chapter he wrote on African American Research in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy.

A couple of resources specific to African American history in the Houston area are the Houston Oral History Project’s Gregory School Interviews and Houston Public Library’s African American Library at the Gregory School.  Also worth checking out is the Portal to Texas History which not only grants access to many digitized photographs, newspapers and yearbooks, but also includes collections specific to African Americans such as the,  “African American Funeral Programs of San Antonio”. 

Cyndi’s List has links to online sources for African American genealogy research and Houston Public Library’s research sources include a collection of web sites and databases that focus on African American Studies (for remote access to databases you’ll need a Houston Public Library card, but you can get that at many HCPL locations, including ours).  Henry Gates, Jr., historian and host of PBS shows Faces of America, African American Lives & African American Lives 2, also has a list of useful genealogy links included on the resources page for Faces of America

Do you want to know what part of Africa your family came from, but you have no idea how to do that?  If you can't work your way back using traditional genealogical research methods, one avenue to pursue is genetic genealogy.  What is genetic genealogy?  Blaine Bettinger runs a blog called The Genetic Genealogist, and you can read a description that he’s written on genetic genealogy here.  The International Society of Genetic Genealogy has compiled a list of DNA testing companies here, at least two of which, African Ancestry and African DNA, specialize in African American DNA testing. So go out there and get started on your search, and if you want to check out any books on how to conduct your genealogy search, check out our online catalog, or ask a reference librarian to direct you to the correct area. 

(1) Burroughs, Tony, Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree (New
York: Fireside Book, 2001), 42.