In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future. ~ Alex Haley (1921-1992)

Many issues complicate the process of tracing African American genealogy. First and foremost is the lack of traditional genealogical resources. After all, as an enslaved people, African Americans were prohibited from attending school, learning to read and write, legally marrying, voting, owning property or a business — and these are the types of records upon which most genealogical research relies.

However, citizenship in 1868 offered its own set of challenges. Although the African American community had access to schools, and rising literacy rates produced more letters, diaries, etc., and, for the first time, they appeared in land deeds, wills, and school records, these records are not always as easily located as those of their white counterparts. Segregation affected even the records that African Americans left behind. Records were kept separately, indexed separately. Fortunately, many researchers and historical societies are beginning to examine and to trace the history of African Americans.

A selection of reference (non-circulating) items available in the Maples History Center:

  • 1850, 1860 Sevier County Slave Schedules in Microfilm
  • Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915 by Loren Schweninger
  • Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War: A Guide to Service, Sources, and Studies by Eric Grundset
  • The History of the New Salem Baptist Church by Martha Burden Bowden
  • North Carolina General Assembly Sessions Records: Slaves and Free Persons of Color, 1709-1789
  • Tennessee Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in Tennessee from Interviews with Former Slaves
  • Virginia Slave Births Index, 1853-1865

The following list represents some of the online resources available to those researching their genealogy.

African American Genealogical Resources at the Tennessee State Library and Archives – A research guide provided by the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA); it includes resources available through TSLA as well as some important links to websites.

African American Genealogy – A research guide from the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

African American Heritage – A subsection of the National Archives dedicated to African American history and resources.

African American Historical & Genealogical Society – This genealogical society provides an exhaustive list of resources and websites to begin your journey.

The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship : Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period – A Library of Congress Exhibition. Includes historical explanations and primary materials. – A website dedicated to the blended families of African and Native American heritage. – A site dedicated for African American genealogy. The website includes a wealth of vital records (marriage, death), census records, library records, digitized photographs, and a surname database. Library Edition – The Library edition of Ancestry includes many resources for African American genealogy, including a guide to getting started, which may be found here. However, in order to use the Library edition, you must be at one of the libraries within the Sevier County Public Library System.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938 – A digital collection from the Library of Congress, Born in Slavery “contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.  These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA).”

Building Blocks of African American Genealogy – A short, instructional guide to pursuing African American genealogical research.

Cyndi’s List: African Americans – A comprehensive list of African American genealogy websites.

Documenting the American South – From the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Documenting the American South (DocSouth) is a digital publishing initiative that provides Internet access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture. Currently DocSouth includes sixteen thematic collections of books, diaries, posters, artifacts, letters, oral history interviews, and songs.

Documenting Runaway Slaves – The Documenting Runaway Slaves research project is a collaborative effort to document newspaper advertisements placed by masters seeking the capture and return of runaway slaves. 

Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade “ is a discovery hub that helps users to search and find information from a large and growing number of datasets and digital projects.  Researchers can learn from linking data, visualizing larger relations and movements, and connecting the traces of people from one dataset to the next. … It also provides richly detailed stories of the lives of those enslaved.”

FamilySearch – This free genealogy resource operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints includes African American resources. They also have a research guide available here.

Free People of Color in Louisiana – A multi-institution collaboration to digitize the records and images of free people of color. – A history of the free African American communities of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware, this website includes tax lists, census records, court records, and military records.

Freedmen’s Bureau – The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in 1865 to supervise and manage all matters relating to refugees, freed peoples, and lands abandoned or seized during the Civil War. They provided rations, clothing, operated hospitals and camps and supervised labor contracts between the newly freed peoples and planters. They also assisted in the establishment of schools, legalized marriages which occurred under slavery, and provided transportation to refugees. The Bureau also assisted Black veterans in obtaining pay and pensions.

Freedmen History of Oklahoma – “When the Five Tribes were forcibly removed from their homelands in the 1830s–40s, people enslaved by the tribes also made the long journey to Indian Territory. By 1861, eight to ten thousand Black people were enslaved throughout Indian Territory. In 1863 the Cherokee National Council passed an act freeing all people enslaved by their tribe, but many slaveholders ignored the law. After the Civil War, new treaties between the US government and the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole abolished slavery among the tribes and outlined citizenship rights available to the Freedmen and their descendants. These treaties were ratified in the summer of 1866.”

Freedom in the Archives: Free African Americans in Colonial America – An article from the open access (free) online academic journal, The Journal of Early American Life. This journal is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, which hosts other articles about free and enslaved African Americans.

Freedom on the Move: Rediscovering the Stories of Self-Liberating People – A database of fugitives from American slavery

HeritageQuest – A resource available through the Tennessee Electronic Library, it is free for all Tennesseans. There are many resources available through HeritageQuest, including records from the Freedmen’s Bank.

John Hope Franklin Research Center – “The Franklin Research Center collects, preserves and promotes the use of published and unpublished primary sources for the exploration, understanding and advancement of scholarship of the history and culture of Africa and people of the African Diaspora in the Americas.”

Landscape of Liberation: The African American Geography of Tennessee – “The African American Geography of Tennessee is an interactive map showing the landscape of emancipation as it unfolded from 1860 to 1890. As slavery and plantation life dissolved in the crucible of war and occupation, Tennessee became a laboratory of innovative social arrangements for African Americans. This application provides new tools and powerful geospatial software for looking at these transformative events during a time of profound social change. Every point on the map is linked to primary documents and images that tell the story of people, places, and events.”

Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery – A project from Villanova University, Last Seen is a digital collection of the ads that formerly enslaved people placed in newspapers and with the Freedmen’s Bureau in an effort to find their lost relatives post-Emancipation. It also includes a map that highlights the locations of those placing the ads or where the ads appeared.

Mapping the Destruction of Historical African American NeighborhoodsThe Tennessee State Library and Archives GIS mapping project shows the impact of “urban renewal” and gentrification on African American neighborhoods in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville.

Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau – “Mapping the Freedman’s Bureau is devoted to helping researchers put their ancestors back on the historical landscape where they lived. During those critical years after the Civil War, many once enslaved people found themselves in a dangerous situation. Many had freed themselves and taken refuge after making their way “to the Union Line.” But once they arrived at the line, their fate was uncertain.” This site is devoted to pointing out the many places that affected the newly freed survivors of slavery. The sites where Freedman’s Bureau offices were located are marked for you. In addition other institutions that served former slaves, are marked – the branches of the Freedman’s Savings Bank, Freedmen Schools, contraband camps, and even the location of battle sites where men who were in the US Colored Troops fought.

Proceedings of the State convention of the colored citizens of Tennessee, held in Nashville, Feb. 22d, 23d, 24th & 25th, 1871 – A digital version of the state convention in 1871. – The SlaveVoyages website is a collaborative digital initiative that compiles and makes publicly accessible records of the largest slave trades in history. Search these records to learn about the broad origins and forced relocations of more than 12 million African people who were sent across the Atlantic in slave ships, and hundreds of thousands more who were trafficked within the Americas. Explore where they were taken, the numerous rebellions that occurred, the horrific loss of life during the voyages, the identities and nationalities of the perpetrators, and much more.

Soldiers and Sailors Database – A database maintained by the National Park Service contains information about the men who served in the Union and Confederate armies in the Civil War, including African American units as well as a list of 18,000 African American sailors who served.

They had names : African Americans in Early Records of Liberty County, Georgia – This site includes thousands of documents regarding the enslaved and freed peoples in the early records and Antebellum era of Liberty County.

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