Searching for African American families involves two distinct research approaches. These approaches correspond to the distinct change in the legal status of African Americans in the United States before and after the Civil War. Genealogical techniques used to track slave families before the war are necessarily quite different than those used for white or free African Americans; however, research conducted on African Americans after the war usually involves the same types of records as those used for whites.
Nevertheless, there are still special sources and factors to consider. The golden rule in genealogy is: never assume, always research and document. This rule is particularly relevant to research on African American families. Don’t assume that all African Americans were slaves. Don’t assume that all indices, including those for census and other records, include African Americans. Don’t assume from an entry that he or she is white or African American. Don’t assume that a person noted as white in a record is necessarily so. American Indians, African Americans, and people of mixed heritage, such as mulattoes and Melungeons, did not always want to be identified as such. Finally, don’t assume that laws concerning African Americans were adhered to in all cases. For example, even a legal prohibition against slaves marrying or holding property did not always prevent those proceedings from happening. In Kentucky, where slaves were prohibited from marrying, records from as early as 1793 document the marriages of enslaved African Americans in the central and northern areas of the state.
Legal Status and Naming Conventions
The legal status of slaves makes research particularly difficult. Slaves were legally prohibited from acting on their own behalf, from marrying, from buying property, and from making other contracts. Even if the person of color was free, he or she probably had to struggle to be treated as a free person rather than a slave. As a result, research on African Americans requires knowledge of the slave system, local practices and customs, and the history of African Americans in the United States.
As did many of our immigrant ancestors, free blacks, as well as slaves, typically lost their African names when they came to the United States. However, slaves did not always take surnames at the same time they gave up their African names. They sometimes changed surnames when they changed owners, were reluctant to tell whites the family name they identified with, and arbitrarily chose new surnames after their emancipation. These facts do not mean, however, that given names and surnames are irrelevant for African American families.
Research has shown that slave owners seldom named newborn slave children. Similarities in naming practices among African Americans in the United States and those in western Africa indicate that it is more likely that the slaves chose the names of their children. The given name of a child, therefore, showed important connections between African American families. There appears to have been a significant tendency toward the maternal line when the mother was alone, but when both parents were present, children were named after the maternal and paternal lines in nearly equal numbers.1
In summary, the assumption that African Americans used the same surnames as their owners is not always true. William Still’s book on the Underground Railroad shows that, of the first 210 successful runaways, 84 percent had different surnames than the owners they had fled; this is equally true for men and women.2
While runaways may not have been typical of the general population of African Americans, records from as early as 1720 indicate that slaves often had surnames different than their owners’ names. Certainly, post-Civil War records document that ex-slaves had surnames different than the names of their most recent owners; it is possible many ex-slaves chose new names and identifications when they were emancipated.3
As always in genealogy, research begins with you and works backward. Oral histories can be particularly important in determining clues to the family’s origins. Naturally, these stories require documentation rather than simple acceptance as being accurate. Some communities have oral history projects that may help you learn more about local history. Church histories are often very helpful in documenting the movements of families in and out of the community.
Pre-Civil War Records
Slave Sales and Importation Declarations
Affidavits were required of new residents of some states if they transported slaves into the state. In Kentucky, slave owners were required to declare that the slaves were for their own use and were not for sale. The records often list not only the number, but the name, gender, and age of the slaves, and sometimes the last residence of the owner. Bills of slave sales and slave trade records, including shipping lists, also exist in some states.
White Family and Plantation Records
Pre-Civil War research for African Americans necessarily relies heavily on records of associated white families. Analysis of the records, diaries, wills, Bibles, and cemeteries of white families often yields information on the African Americans who lived and worked with them. Estate records may mention a slave being left to a son or daughter, or the emancipation of a slave. Even if a will does not mention slaves, it is wise to check all probate records of these white families to see whether slaves are listed in the estate inventory, or in the settlement or sale records of the estate.
Some family cemeteries have an African American section; many of those buried there are noted as African American, although they are less likely to have a monument than the white family members. Family bibles sometimes include notations about African American servants or slaves associated with the family.
Many plantations maintained records on virtually every aspect of their operations. While many of these records were destroyed during and after the Civil War, some have survived. The Library of Congress has some plantation records, family accounts, and diaries of the Old South.4 However, the most numerous and richest sources are found at the local level.
Slave Census Schedules
Slave schedules collected by the Census Bureau are available for 1840, 1850, and 1860. In the 1840 schedules, slaves are listed along with the Revolutionary War veterans on page two of the schedule. In 1850 and 1860, slaves were enumerated separately by the name of the owner. While the census enumerates slaves only by age and gender, there may be scattered cases where enumerations list not only the numbers in each category, as required, but also the names of the slaves.
Census Records for Free African Americans
Beginning in 1790, free African American household heads were listed in the federal census. Before 1850, slaves who were hired out were enumerated in the census with their owners, even if they worked and lived elsewhere. The first enumeration of all African Americans by individual family member’s name was the 1870 census. Although census takers attempted to enumerate individual African American family members, the 1880 census was more complete than the 1870 census. One note of caution: while the census included African American families, the companies which produced commercial indices of the censuses did not always include them.
Census Mortality Schedules
Mortality schedules list deaths for the twelve months prior to the census and thus provide a death register for the state for that year. These registers typically under-report deaths by about 13 percent; slave deaths were probably more under-reported than white deaths. However, these records are still an important source for African Americans because deaths are recorded by name along with whether the person was a slave or free. These records are available for the 1850 to 1880 census years.
Before the Civil War, some states specifically awarded jurisdiction over African Americans (free or enslaved), and over the emancipation of slaves. Slaveholders could free slaves by two means: through a document entered into the court record or through a will. When a slave was emancipated by will, a court recorded the emancipation and issued a decree of freedom to the former slave. The former owner or his executor sometimes had to post a bond to insure that the former slave did not become a public charge.
Marriage sometimes followed soon after an emancipation, particularly when an African American man or woman "bought" another adult. Free African Americans often married slaves, but to do so, they first had to obtain their enslaved partner’s freedom. Mothers sometimes bought their offspring and then set them free. The following is an example of an emancipation document.
"I do hereby emancipate and set free from further servitude my daughter, Delphia, whom I purchased from Judge James Simpson. Given under my hand this 26th day of October 1850." –Jemima (her mark) Clark
Emancipation records may be found in various sources, including deed books, special manumission record books, wills, and order books.
The trick to finding these records often lies in untangling the county clerk’s filing method. Slave emancipation, as well as other transactions for African Americans, may be filed under the given name of the former slave, the surname of the owner, or the first name of the person who may have purchased the slave, such as a mother or spouse. Again, slaves sometimes changed their names when they changed owners.
In addition, emancipations are sometimes grouped on a single page of a deed index. They may be at the end of a deed book index on a separate page. Sometimes, no surname is reported and the records are filed by the person’s first name rather than last name. There are documented examples of emancipations being listed under "S" for slave, "C" for colored, and "E" for emancipations. A good imagination is needed to find these records. If no sales or emancipations are found in a particular county, it might be necessary to scan the entire index to discover the method employed by the clerk.
1Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Pantheon Books, 176), 194-203.
2 Ibid., 238-9.
3 Ibid., 232-5.
4 Charles L. Blockson, Black Genealogy (Englewood Cliffs: N.J.: 1977), 70-1. Roseann Reinemuth Hogan holds a Ph.D. in sociology. She has been researching her family since 1978. Her special interests include oral histories and social history.