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Field Worker and Son

Family archives usually reside in local libraries, state archives and national archives. Most major cities also have indexes and directories. Censor information is also important as this usually goes back to the early 1900’s in many places in Western society. 

Military records can also help with black family history as there are extensive records from when blacks had a huge involvement with the military services. Almost all black families in the diaspora can cite a number of families that have served on the armed forces. Enlistment records, retirement and pension lists are usually available. Through the study of such archives and directories a historical sketch can start to form.

The Negro History Bulletin, a publication of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (founded in 1916) carried early research on black families and black family history. “Two North Carolina Families’” appeared in October 1949. Twenty-nine years later in its January-February 1978 issue there were two articles: “Tracing Your Roots,”2 edited by J. Rupert Picott and “Oral History, a Research Tool for Black History,” by Ann Allen Shockley.

The local newspaper is another standard source that can be used and many localities have newspapers that have existed nearly as long as the communities. Black people’s social events and obituaries were reported in newspapers. The Negro Newspaper12 by Vishnu V. Oak and The Afro-American Periodical Press, 1838-190913 by Penelope L. Bullock are sources of such publications.

Also, some books provide useful information like The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution,” published by the Smithsonian Institution, is taken from a major exhibition presented by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. History of the Tenth Cavalry, 1866-1921,” edited by E.L.N. Glass, documents the post-Civil War period. More recently, Lonely Eagles” by Robert A. Rose describes the history of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War 11.

Oral conversations with living relatives are always a very helpful part of the process. Discussing family history, particularly with older relatives can often fill in the gaps where the documentation is lacking. It can often provide photographic evidence, with old photos of ancestors stored away in the attic and often photo albums with old class photos, certificates of education or marriage.

The church is also a good foundation for tracing black family history. The church preserved itself as a remnant of African tribal life and became the centre of ‘Negro’ social life during and after the emancipation of slavery. Records of founders and members can often be found in church records as church records have become a more prominent area in tracing black ancestry, particularly in the USA

There are many reasons why someone may want to know their family history. Some of these related to a person wanting to record the accomplishments of the family for a younger generation, or because a person may want the information to share at a family reunion. In some cases, it may be because a person wants to locate a long-lost family member and reconnect. But more and more young people are wanting to research their family history to better understand world history.

Some of the challenges with family history are that name changes occur over time which sometimes causes problems, especially if these changes are not formally recorded. This happened a lot during slavery, where it was common for a slave to have multiple surnames in their lifetime as they were sold on from one slave owner to the next. As well, after emancipation, many ex-slaves changed their surnames. It can also be complex when figuring out the family relations with one another. In particularly, when children are born or when families are separated after marriage and divorce. Birth and marriage certificates do not always exist and if they do, the names may be different, proven difficult to track.

One of common ways family history has been tracked is in relation to historical events i.e. when was assassinated or when a war ended. This type of tracking in relation to world events has its usefulness, but it also presents an issue with accuracy. How near or far to the event did the family history ‘actually’ occur? This sometimes can not be accurately established with the affiliated timeline of a world event, but in many cases, it might not be necessary to have such accuracy. There are professional genealogists that have developed expertise in black family history research. In some instances, their services can help with such discrepancies. The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society is one that may be able to assist in such research.

A perhaps a more unexpected challenge is that when discussing family history with living family members, there is sometimes a hesitation to discuss delicate topics such as marital affairs, interracial relationships, abandoned children, painful breakups and death. Sometimes getting the full truth can be a difficult task.

Two questionnaires from personal research have been used as examples to assist reunion planners and community historians in designing an information gathering tool. The Meridian History Questionnaire was designed as part of an ongoing project, “The Black Community in Meridian, Mississippi.” The Rufus J. White family and allied families of Liberty community, Kemper County, Mississippi was created by a family member, Dr. Mildred White Barksdale of Urbana, Illinois. Both have proven to be effective guides for assisting those who are seeking to concentrate on the details of their family histories (see links in further information below).

The growth of black journals continues, where scholars explore the subject of black family history and genealogy. More studies are looking at the history of particular black families and their history, or a particular group of black people, i.e. the Maroons. More funding is becoming available for this type of research to be able to exhibit and teach more about the contributions of black historical figures and their backgrounds. More research needs to be done across the board on black families in the diaspora and the origins of black families on the continent of Arica.


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This page was last updated on 03, November, 2021

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Family Archives

Field Worker and Son

Key Points

  • Library archives and government national archives are commonly used to research genealogy.
  • Military records also hold many decades of key information on those involved in the military services. 
  • Family conversations with living relatives can fill in the gaps and uncover family secrets.
  • Church is a good foundation for tracing black family records. 

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