Gayle Hanson, president of the Texas Historical and Ancestry Researchers, spoke at the Northeast Branch Library in honor of Black History Month on the topic of African American Genealogy. Although many of the tips Hanson shared are the same for people searching for their ancestors of any ethnicity, at a certain point in the search, African Americans must take a different path.
For instance, most African Americans were not included in the Federal Census until 1870, after emancipation and the end of the Civil War (except for freed men). But even if your ancestors were in the Census, they might not be listed by the name you know. Even though it is an “official” document, there is no guarantee that people didn’t use their nicknames when asked by the Census taker. Furthermore, names could be misspelled. Brainstorm any and all variations of surnames.
Hanson also suggests browsing the Census listings before and after a relative. Many times it is possible to find other ancestors who lived in close proximity to one another.
Another great resource for Texans is the Works Progress Administration’s collection of slave narratives. The Federal Writers’ Project conducted thousands of interviews with former slaves living in 17 states, mostly in the South, during the 1930s. You can search over 2,000 narratives on the Library of Congress website at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html. Keep in mind that the narratives are organized by the state in which they were gathered, not necessarily the state where the person was born or grew up.
Arlington Public Library has tried to make your search a little easier by compiling many useful databases and ancestry websites in one place. Go to http://www.arlingtonlibrary.org/research/gene.aspx to get started.
And on a somewhat related note: the 2010 Census will be sent to your house in March. It is a 10-question form for you to fill out and send back. Perhaps 72 years from now, your descendants will be trying to find you using the records you create today. Not only that, the statistics generated by the Census determines how much representation you have in Congress, and are used to advocate for more services and infrastructure in your community. For more information on the Census, go to 2010census.gov