Overview of African American Research
This chapter examines many of the records available, dealing both with slave and non-slave related records. In cases where the records are the same as European American records, the text will attempt to show researchers how to use these sources to find African Americans most effectively. In other cases, where the records are unique or are similar but have developed separately, the text discusses them in detail. For example, county marriage records exist for both groups, but may be classified as “White” and “Colored” and filed separately. Print publications also illustrate the separation. Who’s Who in America includes very few African Americans while its counterpart, Who’s Who in Colored America is exclusively African American.1
Oral History and Family Records
African American genealogy begins like all other genealogy: with oral history and family records. Researchers should follow the methods, sources, and examples found in chapter 1, “The Foundations of Family History Research.” An example of one type of record that is unique to the African American community, however, is the funeral program.
Attendees at a traditional funeral receive a prayer card after signing the guest register. This is a 2 x 3 inch folded card normally containing the birth and death dates of the deceased, the date and location of the visitation or funeral, a prayer, and, at times, the name and location of the cemetery.
It appears that these funeral programs began in the 1930s or ’40s, possibly because most African Americans were denied the opportunity to publish obituaries in mainstream newspapers. Funeral programs can be found among family memorabilia, and some genealogists are now donating them to libraries. For more information, see Belzora Cheatham’s Funeral Programs/Obituaries of 579 African Americans.2
Research Back to 1700
1700 is a critical date for researchers of African American genealogy. It represents the beginning of an extremely difficult research period: the pre-1870 world of enslaved African Americans. Success in researching in this period actually depends on how thoroughly one has researched records created after 1870. The researcher must use every available post-1870 source to work methodically back in time from the present, to build a strong foundation of evidence before trying to conduct pre-1870 work. Merely using census records, as many novices do, is not enough.