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African American Genealogy
How to conduct African American genealogical research.
Do-it-yourself genealogical research has become a popular hobby for millions of Americans. Some historical factors can inhibit or aid your research, based on events surrounding the lineage you are tracing. One potential obstacle to tracing African-American lineage is slavery, an institution that broke family bonds and made record keeping nearly impossible. Because African-American slaves were considered property, often a bill of sale - bearing just the age and gender of the person sold - is the only record for an individual living in a pre-Civil War slave-holding state.
The challenges of reaching back to the period before the Civil War are great, but a host of tools are available if you know where to look. One invaluable resource is The U.S. National Archives. Documents created by federal agencies after the Civil War provide a wealth of personal data about the nearly four million African-Americans freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.
For example, The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (or Freedmen's Bureau), established by Congress on March 3, 1865, has a wealth of searchable information. Established to supervise relief and educational efforts for refugees and freed slaves, the Freedmen's Bureau helped countless African-Americans reunite with relatives at the end of the Civil War. Though officially disbanded in 1872, the bureau still maintains detailed records concerning African-American military service, plantation conditions, migration, the names of slave owners, and a host of family-related matters such as birth, marriage and death certificates.
The most reliable records for the pre-Civil War era may be oral histories. Genealogical histories were passed down through stories told from one generation to the next. Since this was often the only way to preserve one's lineage, keeping the facts straight was of paramount importance.
In the 1930s the U.S. Library of Congress created Voices from the Days of Slavery, an oral history project developed to record and transcribe accounts by surviving witnesses of the Civil War and slavery. With the development of audio tape recordings, oral histories have become much easier to collect and preserve, and it is now not uncommon to find genealogical information through various individual collectors.