Introduction to Red Book: African American

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This entry was originally written by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
USA sil.png
the Introduction to Red Book.
Vital Records
Census Records
Background Sources
Land Records
Probate Records
Court Records
Tax Records
Cemetery Records
Church Records
Military Records
Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Archives, Libraries, and Societies
African American
Native American
Internet Resources
County Resources

Research on families with African-American ancestry generally follows the same techniques as those with European-American ancestry. Records chronicling the lives of Americans of African descent exist in abundance in the Western world and Africa. All the record sources discussed here (vital, land, probate, court, etc.) include evidence for research on African-American

families, particularly “free blacks,” although not always specifically identifying an individual with any ethnic or racial description.

The historical past of those with African ancestry is likely to include ancestors who were slaves as well as free, African American as well as white. The institution of slavery generated a voluminous number of documents about slaves. Unfortunately, most of them have not been published or microfilmed and remain difficult to locate for genealogical purposes. The major exceptions to this are the enumerations of free African Americans and slaves on the federal census (see Census Records) and other record groups, such as the Freedmen’s Bureau records, held by the National Archives. National Archives Trust Fund Board’s Black Studies: A Select Catalog of NARA Microfilm Publications (Washington, D.C.: National Archives, 1984, 1996) catalogs and describes the extent of these holdings. Information about the records and access to a growing number of them is available at Marriage records in several states documented in the bureau’s holdings are among those available online, for example.

During the 1930s, the WPA collected oral histories from many elderly ex-slaves. A superb collection, it has been reproduced in a multi-volume set, organized by state. See the multi-volume series, George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Co., 1972–79). Several projects are underway to digitize the over 2000 narratives for Internet access. See the Library of Congress, “Born in Slavery”; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hills, “North American Slave Narratives,” a National Endowment for the Humanities project among others. The slave narratives are also available via CD-ROM and online from

Websites, organizations, and books focused on African-American genealogy include and

  • The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, P.O. Box 73086, Washington, DC 20056
  • African American Genealogy Group, P.O. Box 27356, Phila-delphia, PA 19118
  • Blockson, Charles L. with Ron Fry. Black Genealogy. Rev. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1991.
  • Burroughs, Tony. Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001. Topics include oral history, family records, social security, census, and a discussion of electronic genealogy.
  • Fears, Mary L. Jackson. Slave Ancestral Research: It’s Something Else. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1995. Follows the author’s research in her own family with hints for research in other families.
  • Rose, James M. and Alice Eichholz. Black Genesis: A Resource Guide for African American Genealogy. 2d ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2003. A state-by-state comprehensive guide to the use of the extensive genealogical records involving African Americans.
  • Thackery, David T. Finding Your African American Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2000.
  • ______ . “Tracking African American Family History” in Szucs and Luebking, The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. rev. ed. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1997.
  • ______ and Dee Parmer Woodtor. Case Studies in Afro-American Genealogy. Chicago: Newberry Library, 1989. Four case studies using different methodological approaches as examples for guiding research in other cases.
  • Woodtor, Dee Parmer. Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African American Genealogy and Historical Identity. New York: Random House, 1999. An essential handbook and guide.