Learning about your African-American family history starts with asking questions, which can sometimes be challenging. Expert Angela Walton-Raji shares tips on talking to your relatives to uncover your family’s stories and heritage.
All of our relatives have unique stories. Like these young ladies at a Naval Air Station spring formal dance in Seattle, Washington, in 1944. (Click on the picture to learn more about it.)
Many African-American families share particular types of memories and experiences–for better or for worse–from having lived in the United States. Recently genealogy expertAngela Walton-Raji joined Lisa Louise Cooke on the Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 201 to share tips about researching these stories.
She especially talked about the importance of interviewing elders, and shared several questions she suggested asking. These will help you learn more about your relative’s own life and other family experiences with the Civil Rights movement, migration, and military service. These questions also delve deeper into passed-down family memories that may help you trace your family history back to the era of slavery.
What to ask in African-American oral history interviews
1. Do you know of anyone in the family who was born a slave? (If old enough: as a child, did you know anyone personally who was born a slave?)
2. Who was the oldest person that you remember when you were a child? And did that person ever talk about anyone who may have been enslaved?
3. What do you know about where the family was from? (Were we always from Georgia, or was there a time when we came from another place? Why did we move? Who remembers that journey?) These questions may help you trace your family during the Great Migration.
4. Were you (or other relatives) involved in the Civil Rights movement, in the Garvey era, with the Freedom Riders, or other important events in your lifetime? What kinds of things did you see?
5. Who in the family participated in the military (in World War II, World War I, or the Spanish-American War)? FYI: African-American military units through the mid-20th century were still referred to as Buffalo soldiers. (In the interview, Angela mentioned the Triple Nickel, a unit of all-black World War II paratroopers.
“If you just drop a couple of key words you might jar their memory and get an amazing narrative to come out.” -Angela Walton-Raji
Millions of New England vital records are among newly-published genealogy records online. So are English parish records, Irish Easter Rising records, Italian civil registrations, South African church records, and records for Georgia WWI soldiers and Louisiana women.
New online this week are millions of new genealogy records from around the world! First, we’ll feature these (mostly) free vital records collections for New England states–but keep scrolling. We’ve got records to mention for other parts of the U.S., as well as England, Ireland, Italy, and South Africa.
New England Vital Records
New England vital records online got a BIG bump this week with the following additions:
Sample image from “Maine Vital Records, 1670-1921.” Database with images. FamilySearch. http://FamilySearch.org : 2 May 2017. Citing Division of Vital Statistics. State Board of Health, Augusta. Click to view.
Connecticut. More than 755,000 indexed names have been added to FamilySearch.org’s free collection, Connecticut Marriages, 1640-1939. This hybrid index/image collection has this note: “We have legal rights to publish most of the images associated with these records; however, there are a few records that will not have an accompanying image available for view.”
Maine. FamilySearch.org has added nearly a half million indexed names to its collection of Maine Vital Records, 1670-1921. According to the site, the collection is comprised of a “name index and images of birth, marriage, and death returns acquired from the State Board of Health, Division of Vital Statistics and the state archives.”
Rhode Island. FamilySearch has added over a half million new indexed names and 30,000 digital images to its free collection, Rhode Island – Vital records. These are described as “Certificates and registers of births, 1846-1898, 1901-1903, marriages 1901-1903 and deaths, 1901-1953 acquired from the State Archives in Providence.”
Other new and updated records in the US include:
Newspapers – Baltimore MD and Hartford CT. Newspapers.com has added issues for two major papers: the Baltimore Sun (1837-2017) and the Hartford Courant (1764–2017). (With a Newspapers.com Basic subscription, you can access issues of these papers through 1922; or, with a Publisher Extra subscription, access those early years and additional issues from 1923 onward.)
Georgia. A memorial book for Georgia soldiers who served in World War I is being updated to include the names of African-Americans who served. “Due to the social and racial conditions of the time, this Memorial Book contains the information for only white soldiers,” explains the database landing page on the free United States World War I Centennial Commission website. “The current project is rectifying this by adding information for Georgia’s African-American personnel that also died in service. Further, we are adding names found on WWI monuments and plaques that are missing from the original Memorial Book….As missing names are determined and documented, they will be added” We learned about it in this press release from the University of North Georgia.
Louisiana. A collection of digitized publications by the Louisiana United Methodist Women (and predecessor organizations) is now free to search at the Centenary College of Louisiana Archives & Special Collections web portal (scroll down to Digital Collections and click Louisiana United Methodist Women’s Publications). According to an announcement by the college, “The digitized material includes annual reports (1884-2014) and newsletters (1963-2006) – 12,000 pages in total. Researchers can access them online, page through each volume, download complete PDFs, and search the full text versions.” Published digitized material is easy to keyword-search for ancestors’ names and hometowns. Here’s a general tip for finding married women’s names in older documents: search on just her surname or her husband’s name, as she may appear as “Mrs. Alexander Reed.”
Subscription website TheGenealogist has published over 100,000 parish records and thousands of voter records. According to the announcement, polls books include “35 different registers of people who were entitled to vote in Wakefield, West Yorkshire and other constituencies situated in Hampshire, Gloucestershire, Somerset and New Westminster in Canada….Electoral records are taken from the official lists produced to record who was entitled to vote in the various parliamentary elections.” Among new parish record collections are “100,000 new individuals added for the County of Worcestershire and additionally the Registers of the Parish Church of Rochdale in Lancashire that covers the period between 1642 and 1700.”
Findmypast.com has added 312,000 new records to its collection of Kent marriage records. New additions are for the parishes of Bapchild, Biddenden, Kilndown, Tenterden, and Wittersham. Additionally, over 18,000 new records have been added to Kent Baptisms (parishes of Bapchild, Brompton, Chatham, New Gillingham, Wingham and Wittersham); over 3,000 records have been added to Kent Banns (parishes of Bapchild, Biddenden, and Wittersham); and over 18,000 new records are in Kent Burials (parishes of Bapchild, Kilndown, Tenterden, and Wittersham).
The site has also added to its records for North West Kent, described as “areas within the London boroughs which were historically part of Kent.” Over 23,000 records have been added to the North West Kent Baptisms collection, and another 15,000 to North West Kent Burials.
Ireland – Easter Rising and Newspapers
Findmypast.com has added over 76,000 records to its collection, Easter Rising & Ireland Under Martial Law 1916-1921. According to the site, “These once classified records, digitized from original documents held by The National Archives in Kew, record the struggles of life under martial law in Ireland and contain the details of soldiers and civilians who participated in or were affected by the Easter Rising of April 1916.”
“Your ancestor may be found in the records if they were killed or wounded during the conflict, arrested and held in internment, or tried by court martial. Additionally, if their home or place of work was searched they may appear in the records as the collection shows the efforts of the military and police to discover arms, ammunition and seditious material through thousands of raids.”
Also, Findmypast.com has added over 401,089 new articles and one new title to its collection of historic Irish Newspapers. The Ballymena Weekly Telegraph is the latest publication to join the collection and currently covers the years 1904, 1906-1916, 1921-1929 and 1931-1957.
Italy – Civil Registration
FamilySearch.org has added to its free online collections of Italy’s civil registration records. Among them are:
Trapani, 1906-1928; 1.1 million images added to an existing collection
Brescia, 1797-1815, 1866-1943; 620,801 new browseable image
Napoli, 1809-1865; 164,991 images added to an existing collection
Benevento, 1810-1942, over a million images added to an existing collection
South Africa – Church records and civil death records
Keep up with genealogy news from around the world with Lisa Louise Cooke’s FREE Genealogy Gems weekly e-newsletter. You’ll get a free Google Research e-book as a thank-you gift when you do. From this page (or any other on this website), just enter your name where it says “Sign up for the free email newsletter” and click GO.
African-American county slave records are just one of two new collections to broaden your genealogy research. Also this week, records pertaining to the elite group of Masons in North Carolina, naturalization records from Michigan, and church records from New York. Lastly, take a look at the new records available for Northamptonshire, England!
United States – Pennsylvania – African-American County Slave Records
This new database from Ancestry titled Pennsylvania, County Slave Records, 1780-1834 is a great find. This collection contains records pertaining to slaves and free persons from Adams, Bedford, Bucks, Centre, Cumberland, Fayette, Lancaster, and Washington counties, as well as Lancaster City. The types of records include: petitions to keep slaves past the age of twenty-eight, records of “negro” and “mulatto” children, as well as birth and residence registers. Various other records, such as apprenticeship records, bills of sale, and manumissions also occasionally appear.
– the slave’s name (typically only a given name)
– description (e.g., Negro woman, negro man, etc.)
– birth date
– occasionally, the name of a mother
United States – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Finding Family After Slavery
This unique project by Villanova University and Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia will make classified ads of the past easily accessible. The goal of “Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery” is to make accessible an online database of snapshots from history, which hold names of former slaves, owners, traders, plantation locations, and relatives gone missing.
So far, project researchers have uploaded and transcribed 1,000 ads published in six newspapers from 1863 to 1902. These newspapers include: the South Carolina Leader in Charleston, the Colored Citizen in Cincinnati, the Free Man’s Press in Galveston, the Black Republican in New Orleans, the Colored Tennessean in Nashville, and the Christian Recorder, the official publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church denomination published at Mother Bethel.
Screenshot from The Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of North Carolina website.
The list is organized by name of lodge and includes the member’s rank, date and place of death, and where he was buried. This may particularly helpful to those researchers who have not been able to locate a death or burial record, or were not able to locate an obituary.
Materials include registers, membership certificates, minutes of meetings, church financial records, lists of seminary students and teachers. Though the records will vary due to the lengthy time span they cover, you may find:
places where an event (baptism, marriage, death, burial, etc.) took place
United States – Marriages
Over 54,000 records covering more than 1,800 counties have been added to Findmypast’s collection of United States Marriages including substantial updates from Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee. Released in partnership with FamilySearch international, these new additions mark the latest phase of efforts to create the single largest online collection of U.S. marriage records in history.
Each record includes a transcript and image of the original documents that list marriage date, names of the bride and groom, birthplace, birth date, age, residence as well as fathers’ and mothers’ names. The entire collection now contains over 168 million records and continues to grow.
This collection contains images of soundex cards to naturalization petitions. A guide to using a soundex appears at the beginning of most of the image ranges within this collection and corresponds with NARA publication M1917: Index Cards to Naturalization Petitions for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, Detroit, 1907-1995. For additional information on soundex indexes see the wiki article, Soundex.
The records usually include the following information:
Full name of citizen (sometimes a name change is indicated)
Name of court
United Kingdom – Northamptonshire – Baptisms
Findmypast offers more great finds in the collection titled Northamptonshire Baptisms. This collection contains over 14,000 transcripts of original baptism records and covers 34 parishes across the East Midlands county. These records cover the years 1559 through 1901.
The level of detail found each transcript will vary, but most will include names, baptism date, baptism place, the names of both parent’s, document reference, page, and entry number. Remember, these are transcripts only and do not contain an image of the original document.
United Kingdom – Northamptonshire – Hospital Admissions
The collection at Findmypast titled Northamptonshire, Northampton General Hospital Admissions 1774-1846 consists of over 126,000 transcripts of original admission registers held by the Northamptonshire record office. These transcripts will allow you to discover whether your ancestors were admitted to the hospital, when they were admitted, why they were admitted, and the year they were discharged. Most records will also reveal the nature of ailment and the outcome of their treatment.
Even if you haven’t found any African-Americans on your family tree, the challenges and rewards of African-American genealogical research are both fascinating and moving to learn about. And, learn other tips and tricks for genealogy research by listening to our archived free podcasts.
Social history plays a significant role in successful genealogical research. The events of a particular time-frame shed new light on the lives of our ancestors and ultimately lead us to new finds. In this post, Gems Reader Trisha asks questions regarding her family’s ties to the Colored Farmers’ Alliance.
“The Colored Farmers’ Alliance.” NBC News. NBCUniversal Media. 29 July 2007. NBC Learn. Web. 22 January 2015.
Did a Member of the Family Belong to the Colored Farmers’ Alliance?
Our Genealogy Gems Editor, Sunny Morton, received the following email recently from Trisha:
I am researching my great-grandparents in Northeast Arkansas. The census records I have found so far list that my great-grandfather was a famer. So, I started looking up farming associations hoping that maybe he was a member and I could find out more information about him and possibly any relatives that lived nearby. I came across the Colored Farmers’ Alliance that was in existence from 1886- 1891 in the southern states, but I have only been able to find out basic general public information about this agency. Do you know if, or how, I can find an Arkansas member list or something similar? Any help or advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated.
The History of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance
The Colored Farmers’ Alliance was formed in 1886 in the state of Texas. A group of southern African-American farmers had been barred membership to the other Farmers’ Alliances and hoped by creating this group, they would be able to cooperatively solve the common problems of its members. The group also encouraged African-American farmers to become economically independent by purchasing homes and eliminating debt. [“Colored Farmers’ Alliance,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/populism-and-agrarian-discontent/timeline-terms/colore : accessed 28 Oct 2016).]
The organization took off and spread across the Southern United States. It’s peak membership was up to 1.2 million in 1891. However, the organization did not survive long. In 1891, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance called a general strike of African-American cotton-pickers and demanded a wage increase from 50 cents to $1 per hundred pounds of cotton. The strike failed and the group dissolved. [“Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colored_Farmers%27_National_Alliance_and_Cooperative_Union : accessed 28 Oct 2016).]
“Little detail is known about individual members of the Colored Farmers Alliance, including its leadership.”
That may not be surprising considering that the organization was attempting to improve member’s situations and fight for better pay. It’s possible that members may not have wished to be named due to concerns about repercussions. It would be important to learn more about the organization and the political and historical environment in which it operated in order to determine the probability of membership rolls existing or surviving.
While not everything is online (by any stretch of the imagination,) the web is the best place to do further homework to track down offline resources. Trisha could start by contacting the Arkansas State Library, and then exploring these search results from WorldCat.org which include a variety of works on the subject. It would also be very worthwhile to spend some time digging into the wide range of online resources such as Google buy syphilis medication Books and the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America digital newspaper collection. Let’s do that now!
A search of colored farmers alliance delivers several results on the topic. Use search operators to help Google deliver even better results, by putting quotation marks around the search phrase “colored farmers alliance.” This instructs Google to return only web pages that contain that exact phrase. You’ll find more Google search strategies in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, which also includes an entire chapter on using Google Books for genealogy.
Here’s an example of one book I found called The Agrarian Crusade: A Chronicle of the Farmer in Politics by Solon J. Buck (1920).
While I didn’t discover any references to actual member names beyond some of the leaders, Google Books certainly offers more depth and history on the Alliance.
Indian chieftain., March 03, 1892, Image 1 at the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America. (The Indian Chieftan was published in Vinita, Indian Territory [Okla.]) 1882-1902
While only a small fraction of newspapers published throughout history are digitized and online, what can be found offers a wealth of information. The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America offers an excellent cache of searchable newspapers for free. Subscription websites such as Ancestry’s Newspapers.com and Newsbank’s GenealogyBank offer real value if the newspaper you seek is held within their collections.
Since Chronicling America is free, that’s a good place to start. At the main search page, click the Advanced Search tab. On that page, you will have the option to search by state, publication, and dates. Under “Enter Search” fields, there are three options. Type the phrase colored farmers alliance into the “with the phrase” field. That will narrow the search results down to newpaper pages that include the entire phrase and will eliminate pages that have some or all of the words independent of each other. A search of all states for that phrase delivers over 325 digitized newspaper pages featuring articles that include that phrase.
At Newspapers.com, I found dozens of references as well, many from Arkansas newspapers. I also noticed that several individuals wrote and signed letters to the editor on the subject.
For more help on researching newspapers for genealogy, listen to my two part podcast series titled “Find Your Family History in Newspapers, Part 1 and Part 2.”
Google Scholar offers not only well-researched works on a given subject, but also the ability to request only results with source citations. These citations not only help you weigh the accuracy and value of the paper, but provide intriguing new leads for research materials.
Using the same search operators as I did in Google Books, I retrieved over 175 results. To filter these results to only those with source citations, click the “include citations” box on the search page at the bottom, left side.
The savvy genealogist will also want to experiment with variations on the query by adding words and phrases such as members included, members list, list of members, and so on.
Since I devoted another chapter of my book to using another free Google tool, YouTube, I would be remiss if I didn’t run a quick search at the video giant website. Here is a link to the video I found online.
It’s amazing what the family historian can discover from the comfort of their own computer. With so many valuable resources discovered through an online search, a well-prepared trip to the library or archive will prove even more fruitful.
Not all people of color were enslaved prior to the emancipation. In fact, many were freed long before that. Researching free people of color can be quite complex. Tracing my own family line (who were free people of color) continues to be a real learning process for me. However, don’t let the challenges deter you from exploring this rich part of your heritage. In this “Getting Started” post, we discuss the manumission process, “negro registers,” and more for tracing your free people of color.
Jimmy Jeams Rial, a Randolph Freedmen of Rossville, Ohio. Picture courtesy of Piqua Public Library, Miami County, Ohio.
Who are Free People of Color?
[Note: Throughout our post, we will be using terminology that was used at the time the records were created.] A ‘free negro’ or ‘free black’ was a fairly recent status in the U.S. which differentiated between an African-American person who was free and those who were enslaved prior to emancipation. If a person was referred to as a ‘free negro’ or ‘free black’, that meant the person was not living in slavery. It is a fascinating and little know fact that, as Ancestry Wiki states, “one in ten African-Americans was already free when the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter.”
Step 1 for Tracing Free People of Color: Censuses
Sometimes, the story of your ancestors being free people of color was passed on through oral traditions. In my own family, our “line of color” was not talked about. Instead, my first clue was when I found my ancestor in the 1840 population census listed as free. I also found that one woman (presumably his wife) was marked in the column for “free white persons,” but John and the children were marked as “free colored persons” in this census. This was the first step to identifying my ancestor as a free person of color.
Let’s see another example. The 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Censuses included two population schedules. One enumerated free inhabitants, and the additional schedule, referred to as a Slave Schedule, was for making an enumeration of those persons who were enslaved. [We will discuss this further, below.]
If your ancestor appears on the 1850 U.S. Federal Census for free inhabitants, they are considered free, even if their race was listed as “Black.” An example of a Black man enumerated on the 1850 census is shown in the image below. Archibald Giles is recorded as “Black,” but appears on this census for “free inhabitants.” Therefore, he would be considered a free person of color.
If your targeted ancestor does not appear on either the 1850 or 1860 population schedule for free inhabitants, they might have been enumerated on the slave schedules of 1850 or 1860.
1850 Slave Schedule for Henry County, Tennessee. Snapshot via Ancestry.com.
In this example to the left, you will see a portion of the Henry County, Tennessee Slave Schedule for 1850. Notice, only the heads of household or the “owners” were listed by name. Slaves were not named, but rather listed by age and sex under the names of their “owners.”
Step 2: The Manumission Process
Once you have identified that you have free people of color in your family tree, the next step is to determine how they became free. Many free people of color came from families that had been free for generations. This could have been due to a manumission of an ancestor or a relationship between an indentured white woman and a black slave. I make mention of this relationship between races because it is helpful to remember that the status (whether free or enslaved) of the child was based on the status of their mother. If the mother was free, then the child was free. If she was a slave, then the child was enslaved. 
Manumission was a formal way in which slaves were set free. There are many reasons why a slave owner may have released or freed his slaves. In some cases, slave owners would free their mistresses and children born to her. In one case, I found the following comment made by the slave owner, “I give my slaves their freedom, to which my conscience tells me they are justly entitled. It has a long time been a matter of the deepest regret to me…” And thirdly, it was possible for a slave to obtain their manumission through the act of “self-purchase.”
If the mother was free, then the child was free. If she was a slave, then the child was enslaved. 
Private manumission through probate. A private manumission decree could be made in a last will and testament. You can find these manumissions in wills, estate papers, or in probate packets. Many of these county level probate records have been microfilmed or digitized and are easily accessible online.
Sometimes, a manumission in a will would be contested. When this happened, a long paper trail of court documents may have been created. A thorough search of all of these proceedings may offer a wealth of genealogical data and clues.
Usually, manumission papers included the name of the slave owner, the name of the slave, and the reason for manumission. In the case of the slaves of John Randolph of Roanoke [Virginia,] his slaves were not named individually in his will written on 4 May 1819. Instead he stated, “I give my slaves their freedom, to which my conscience tells me they are justly entitled. It has a long time been a matter of the deepest regret to me, that the circumstances under which I inherited them, and the obstacles thrown in the way by the laws of the land, have prevented my manumitting them in my lifetime, which is my full intention to do, in case I can accomplish it.”
John freed over five hundred slaves, and though each of them was not listed by name in his will, a codicil at the end of the will did name two of his slaves when he asked that Essex and his wife Hetty “be made quite comfortable.”
Record of Arthur Lee purchasing his freedom.
Manumission through self purchase. Self-purchase may seem impossible; however, many slaves were not required to work on Sundays for their masters. On this day, men and women could hire themselves out to do work for others. With frugality, they could save their earnings to buy their freedom or the freedom of their loved ones, though this was very, very difficult.
As you can see in this example of Arthur Lee, he was able to pay for his freedom and the freedom of his wife, though it took many years. This type of record could be found in a published book, a record listed in notarial books of the county, civil minutes books, or other courthouse holdings. It is important to speak with a knowledgeable person in your targeted area about where you should look. A knowledgeable person may be those working with the local historical or genealogical society, or a head of the local history department of the public library.
Step 3: “Negro Registers”
If you do not find the manumission in a last will and testament, perhaps due to a courthouse fire or other loss, you may have luck searching the county records where your free people of color later settled. Free people of color were often required to register, using their freedom papers, when they relocated to a new area. These types of records are called ‘negro registers’ or ‘records of free negros.’
Newly freed people carried with them their freedom papers which were given to them when they were manumitted. Once they relocated, they would register with the county clerk. They would need to show the county clerk these freedom papers and a record was made in the register. The record may include the name of members of the family, ages, and most recent place of residence.
The book titled Registers of Blacks in the Miami Valley: A Name Abstract, 1804-1857 by Stephen Haller and Robert Smith, Jr. provides the following information about registers of freed people:
“From 1804 to 1857, black people in Ohio had to register their freedom papers with the clerk of courts of common pleas in the county where they desired residency or employment. State law required this registration, and clerks of court were to keep register books containing a transcript of each freedom certificate or other written proof of freedom (see Laws of Ohio 1804, page 63-66; 1833, page 22; 1857, page 186). Few of these registers have survived to the 20th century.”
Though this author says that only a few of the registers have survived, I found some microfilmed registers listing the names of free people of color who had settled in Miami County, Ohio at the local historical society archives. Again, it is important to ask those people who would be most knowledgeable, and in this case, it was the historical society.
In conclusion, we understand that tracing both our enslaved and manumitted ancestors is often a difficult task. We also know there is much more to learn and share for the best techniques to researching these lines. We encourage you to review some of the additional sources below. Please let us know what other resources have been most helpful to you in researching your free people of color in the comments section below. We want to hear from you!