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“Watching the celebrities research their family history on Who Do You Think You Are? I’ve been inspired to broaden the way I look at my ancestors. By putting them in the context of the eras in which they lived, I’ve come to understand them better.
I want to leave a rich legacy of understanding for my nieces and nephews and their children so future generations will know where they came from. I believe that researching our place in the world can show us how connected we all truly are and in that space, prejudice has no place.”
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In Episode 5 of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Lionel Richie set off to learn about the ancestors whose actions helped him succeed. His journey began in Tuskegee, Alabama, where
he found his great-grandfather’s name on a Social Security application. Using city directories, a diary and other documents, Lionel revealed that his great-grandfather was born into slavery but later led an organization that set the stage for Civil Rights. Miss the episode? Watch it on NBC.com.
Step 1: Search known sources. Start by searching the Social Security Death Index, which lists a death date and other information for individuals who applied for Social Security numbers beginning in the 1930s. Then trace a family member further back in time using city directories, U.S. Census records and birth, marriage and death records. Pay close attention to early African American family history resources like U.S. Colored Troops Service Records, pension applications and records from the Freedman’s Bureau, which provided post Civil War relief and assistance.
Step 2: Go back past the Emancipation Proclamation. Search for African American ancestors in the 1870 U.S. Census, the first to list former slaves by name. If you find them there but not in the 1860 U.S. Census, it might mean your ancestor was a slave at emancipation. Look for nearby landowners in 1870 and pay close attention to those with the same last name as your ancestor, as slaves sometimes adopted the last names of their owners upon emancipation. Then search for those landowners in slave schedules from 1850 and 1860.
Step 3: Follow the names. Finding a former slave often requires following a former slave owner through court records such as wills and deeds. These records may mention a slave by name or hold birth information or family details. State-specific resources on Ancestry.com include emancipation records from the District of Columbia, slave certificates from Mississippi, an 1866 Alabama state census and more. You’ll find additional resources in the Ancestry.com African American family history collection.
Searching for African American ancestors?
View our online class: Making a Breakthrough
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First Steps 3: Using Your Discoveries to
Make Your Next Big Find, which airs live
on March 9th.
Death certificates: Look for a cemetery or funeral home from which you can request additional details.
Professional and organization directories: Your relative may have belonged to a group that had ties to a particular cemetery.
Military records: Ancestors who served in the military may have been buried in a military cemetery.
City directories: Locate a home address and then check the same directory for nearby cemeteries.
Ancestry.com family trees: Learn where one family member was buried and you may find other relatives in the same cemetery.