African American Research
Submitted by Debbie Quinn

Researchers must become knowledgeable of slave management practices, the slave laws of the areas where his slave ancestors lived and read the county histories. Many county histories named the earliest settlers, and described how the Civil War affected movement of the population. The historical context is a very critical research tool.

At the time of the Civil War, the vast majority of African Americans were slaves. They had no legal rights and could not even claim a legally recognized state of matrimony. Although records generated after emancipation can be very revealing, records documenting slave families which were contemporary to slavery are usually records, both private and public, concerned primarily with their owner. The researcher of slave genealogy therefore must know the identity of a slave owner in order to research the slave. Slaveowning families--their migrations, births, deaths, and marital alliances--must therefore be the focus of research before any success can be achieved in tracing the lives of their slaves.

Many of the basic tools of genealogy can be successfully used to the research of the African American lineage going back to the Civil War. These include: vital records, federal census, cemetery records, inscriptions, etc. Many of the marriage, birth and death records in the old slave states were maintained by local governments in separate ledgers.

Many could have racially mixed backgrounds with African, Caucasian and American Indian ancestry. The possibility to find an antebellum free black ancestor in a time or place where the free black population was small is very unlikely.

Naming Practices

An understanding of slave naming practices and their family life are important. Two books most helpful are Roll Jordan Roll by Genovese and Gutman's The Black Family In Slavery and Freedom.

The researcher must understand that our slave ancestors made different choices after freedom about their names and where they lived. If a slave ancestor did not take the name of his last owner and no family member knows about his early name changes, it may not be possible to learn the name of the slave master.

Slave ancestry research is characterized by "Ifs, Ands and Buts." When a researcher finds the given "name" of a slave ancestor within a document and identifies that "name" as his/her possible slave ancestor, the identification of that "person's" mother (as father's are seldom mentioned) depends upon "Ifs, Ands and Buts."

"If" the slaves "named" were not taken from their biological mothers as infants or small children "and" sold or given to a married daughter, then the female listed with the "named" slave ancestors may be the "named" slave ancestors' mother. "But" with divine guidance (I call it) or a streak of luck, persistent research may lead to finding other documents of the slave owner. Other documents among the slave owner's records may reveal a relationship.

Sometimes, the reference may be written "Mary and her child" with no name of the child "but" in another record the child's name may be recorded.

The "Name" Game

After freedom some slaves maintained their own surname traditions, regardless of who their owners might have been. They may have retained the surname of his or her owner, a slave ancestor, the first owner, or even the maiden name of the slave owner's wife "IF" she had become owner of the slaves prior to her current marriage. Sometimes, the freedman reversed and used the slave owner's surname as his (the freedman) given name or took another surname altogether. A priviledge of being free was "selecting" a surname. However, many in bondage had surnames which were kept secret from the slave owning family.

IF the freedmen moved to another county after freedom and no longer resided near his/her former slave owner in 1870, "and" with no reliable oral family history, the researcher may have to be contented with the information given in the 1870 Federal Census and feel successful in having located his ancestors to 1870. That alone is an accomplishment! IF a freedman moved away for a few years after freedom, then returned to work for his old slave owning family, the employer listed in early tax records may indicate the name of the freedman's former slave owner. To discover "IF" a slave ancestor retained the maiden name of the slave owner's wife, the researcher may look at marriage records of all 1860 slave owners in the county and/or books of early marriage records in the county in which one's slave ancestors lived. The marriage records would give the maiden name of the brides. IF the wife brought slaves into a marriage, relatives of those slaves may have been sold and the ones remaining with her may have decided to retain the wife's maiden name in the event their "sold-away relatives" may one day be reunited.

To identify the slave owner of one's slave ancestor will require a genealogical search of the slave owner's family beginning with the earliest record of his entry into this country. Identifying the surname of the slave owner is a gigantic hurdle "BUT" the important one.

The Federal Census:

It has already been noted that African Americans were enumerated as all other U.S. residents from 1870 (the first census year following the Civil War and emancipation) onward. Prior to 1870, however, the situation was far different. Although free African Americans were enumerated by name in 1850 and 1860, slaves were consigned to special, far less informative, schedules in which they were listed anonymously under the names of their owners. The only personal information provided was usually that of age, gender, and racial identity (either black or mulatto). As in the free schedules, there was a column in which certain physical or mental infirmities could be noted. In some instances the census takers noted an occupation, usually carpenter or blacksmith, in this column. Slaves aged 100 years or more were given special treatment; their names were noted, and sometimes a short biographical sketch was included.

Sometimes the listings for large slaveholdings appear to take the form of family groupings, but in most cases slaves are listed from eldest to youngest with no apparent effort to portray family structure. In any event, the slave schedules themselves almost never provide conclusive evidence for the presence of a specific slave in the household or plantation of a particular slaveowner.

Prior to 1850 there were no special slave schedules for the manuscript census, as slave data was recorded as part of the general population schedules. In these, only the heads of household were enumerated by name. To search for slaveowners of the same surname in the 1860 slave schedules of the county in which the African American family resided in 1870. Starting in 1850, another supplemental schedule, the mortality schedule, listed all deaths within a year before the regular census enumeration. The deaths of blacks and mulattoes, both free and slave, are recorded in them, even though their names have not been included in many of the indexes to these schedules. The deaths of slaves were generally enumerated in four fashions: unnamed (as in the slave schedules), but perhaps with the owner identified; by first name only, by first name and surname; and by first name with the owner noted.

Finding your ancestors in the 1870 census is the first step toward solving the mystery of their years in bondage. After the Civil War, most recently freed slaves remained at or near the place they'd lived before the war. Many who did relocate were reuniting with family they'd been separated from.

This search will probably take you back to a county or parish somewhere in the South. From 1790 until 1900, 90 percent of African-Americans lived in the South, mostly in rural areas. For many ex-slaves, the migration northeast, north and west didn't begin until after 1900.

If your ancestors were in the North in 1870, it's possible they were freed prior to the war. Even so, you'll probably have to search for a slaveholder since most free blacks were slaves at some point. Records documenting their freedom were usually recorded in county courthouses in probate or deed records.

If you can't find your ancestors in the 1870 census, it's likely they lived in the same state, county and community in 1880. So make 1880 your focus instead.

Look carefully at the community where your ancestors lived in 1870. Ask: