African American Genealogy

By The History Detectives Team
2 July 2007
Category: Viewer Mailbag

Dear Tukufu, 
My mother is from Germany and my father from the US. My father is African American. His oldest brother attempted to trace the family and came to a dead end after three generations. How does an African American family get over that gap when the surname is no longer relevant?

Dear Linda,

Your uncle could have run into this road block for several reasons. For example, lack of documentation, marriage of a relative, a change of name by a relative, or immigration could have all contributed to this problem. However, the more typical problem for African Americans is associated with the period of enslavement and the immediate aftermath of this historic tragedy. As a result of enslavement, African Americans are constantly confronted with the limits of tracing their genealogy by the use of surnames. In cases where this problem is the major obstacle, the investigator must pursue alternative means of locating the identity of the individual. Let me assume that you are referring to a limitation imposed by the enslavement of your father's family.

If you have information on the residential history, the plantation of enslavement, place of birth or death, date of birth or death, military service, pension records, and school records these may also be useful in your search. Some of this type of information might be available in a national or local archive.

Surnames are a complex matter in the history of African Americans. In your case the surname may help in identifying the plantation that your father’s family lived during the period under consideration. When the surname is of not help then you can always turn your attention to the information that you have. For example, you might be able to use the given names (first names) of your father’s known relatives as a clue in your search. Contrary to most popular notions of African American family life during enslavement, African Americans developed relatively stable family relationships during this time. I am not trying to excuse the abuses of the enslaved or the tragedies of family life under enslavement; however, it is important to recognize that the African American family was not destroyed in slavery. African family patterns were not totally destroyed during enslavement. For more on this subject see Herbert G. Gutman's "The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925" and Andrew Billingsley's "Black Families in White America." Two cultural patterns: (1) African Americans on slave plantations used a number of naming methods that were directly connected to the lack of stable surnames. African Americans have maintained a very strong culture of exogamous (outside the family) marriage patterns. This fact allows you to use the naming patterns of African Americans to identify relatives. (2) If you have the names of several relatives you may be able to discern the pattern used in your fathers family. It was typical for the enslaved to name their children consistently after older relatives in a consistent manner in order to maintain exogamy. Several plantations on which enslavement was maintained kept records of the enslaved. And, often these records indicated the relationships of some of the enslaved. Unfortunately, typically on the first names were used; however, if you follow the research of Professor Gutman you can use these names to guide you in your effort to locate information on your family. Unfortunately, you would need to have both the plantation records and names of all of your father's relatives.

Good Luck on your journey.

Peace, TZ


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