African American Family History

by Juliana Smith

African American family historians face unique challenges when it comes to researching their family’s past. During periods of discrimination, not only were African Americans segregated from their white counterparts, their records were sometimes also segregated. While beginning research for descendants of slaves may utilize similar records as those of other Americans, once they hit 1870, the search becomes much more complicated--but not impossible.

As with any family history research, one of the keys to success is laying a good foundation. Be sure to exhaust all home sources and interview every family member you can so that you can begin your search with as much information as possible. has a growing collection of African American records that can help you build on that foundation.

Once you’ve gathered as much information as you can from family members, seek out U.S. Census records, vital records, military, and as many other late nineteenth and early twentieth century records as possible. When working with microfilms and registers, keep in mind that the records of African Americans may be separate from those of white people in a “colored” section toward the end of the record group. In the military, African Americans served in segregated units until the army was integrated in 1952.

There were also many free African Americans living in the United States prior to the Civil War. Tony Burrough’s book, Black Roots, cites the fact that there were “more than 200,000 free Blacks living in the North and another 200,000 free in the South prior to the Civil War.”

In addition to core collections like directories, census, vital, and military records, here are a few collections available at Ancestry that you’ll want to search.

Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874
The year 1865 found many African American Civil War veterans and ex- slaves with money in their pockets and there was a need for an institution where they could save their money. The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (often referred to as the Freedman’s Bank) was incorporated on 03 March 1865 to meet that need. Unfortunately mismanagement and fraud led to the failure of that institution in 1874 wiping out the savings of many African Americans. While some were eventually able to recover about two-thirds of their savings, many never got any of their money back.

The signature registers of the Freedman’s Bank were preserved and eventually wound up in the National Archives, and in 2005, indexed these records and made the index and images available to members. For purposes of identification, these registers asked personal questions of the account holder and as a result, many contain a goldmine of information regarding family structure. Names of spouses, children, parents, siblings, and even aunts and uncles can be found on the signature registers. Other information may include physical description, place of birth, residences, occupation, employer, and some earlier records will even include the names of former slave owners--a critical piece of information for tracing a slave beyond the Civil War. For more information, see the Prologue article on the National Archives website by Reginald Washington. Click here to search the records of the Freedman's Savings and Trust.

U.S. Freedmen Bureau Records of Field Offices, 1865-1872
The Civil War devastated the South, leaving former slaves and many whites destitute and homeless. Returning veterans came home to a ruined economy and the loss of their fortunes. Former slaves now had to seek employment and were thrust into a new social order. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (a.k.a., the Freedmen's Bureau) was formed in 1865 to help rebuild the South and assist the many needs of these Southerners.

The records of the Freedmen’s Bureau include:

  • Labor Contracts
  • Letters (mostly to or from Washington, D.C.)
  • Applications for Rations
  • Monthly Reports of Abandoned Land
  • Monthly Reports of Clothing and Medicine Issued
  • Statistical School Reports
  • Court Trial Records
  • Hospital Records
  • Lists of Workers
  • Complaints Registered
  • Census Returns
  • Other

While these records aren’t currently searchable by name at Ancestry, they are broken down by state and record type and there is some interesting information in here for those who are willing to take the time to browse through it. I found quite a few hospital lists of admissions that included names, ages, dates of admission and discharge, death information, and illness. Another interesting item I found was under the Court Trial Records for Georgia. It was a Bounty Register that gave the soldier or sailor’s name, company and regiment, amount due, and when it was paid among other things. Click here to browse the records of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Click here to begin exploring your African American roots.