The overwhelming majority of Americans of African ancestry are descendants of slaves forcibly brought to the New World during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of these slaves were from peoples living within 300 miles of the Atlantic coast between the Congo and Gambia rivers in East Africa. In addition, since the end of the Second World War, a significant number of people of African ancestry have emigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean, where their ancestors were also slaves (primarily at the hands of the British, Dutch, and French).
Since most tribal history in Africa was recorded by oral tradition rather than written down, actually tracing one's roots in Africa can be an extremely difficult task, but not impossible. Alex Haley, the author of Roots was able to trace his ancestors all the way back to the African continent. By examining records of slave sales and slave advertisements, many people may be able to trace their family history all the way back to the original arrival of their ancestors in America.
Contacts and Sources
Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society
African American Genealogy Group
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Web SitesThe World Wide Web offers an enormous number of sites dedicated to African-American history, culture, and genealogy. Rather than try to list them all here, we've chosen a select few that are good starting points.
Books and CDs
Below is a sampling of early colonial newspapers that published slave advertisements. From them you may be able to find information about your own ancestors.
In addition to slave advertisements, plantation books may be excellent sources. Also, since slaves were considered property, you may find records of them in deed books and the probate records of their owners. You may also want to look into Slave Genealogy: A Research Guide with Case Studies by David H. Streets.
For individuals who lived after 1864, you can generally use the same procedures as for any other group: look for census records, vital records, and family sources. Many, but not all, former slaves took the surname of their owners upon emancipation. Some tried different names before settling on one. Also, don't forget to check Civil War indexes, as many former slaves served in the military. Genealogy.com's CD 165 provides an index of African-Americans who were enumerated in the 1870 U.S. Census (the first Census in which African-Americans were included as citizens).
It is also possible that your ancestors were prominent in the affairs of the African-American community in the United States. As a result, we strongly recommend that you consider searching back issues of the appropriate African-American newspapers (and, of course, general newspapers for the time period after African-Americans began to receive appropriate coverage). The four books listed above may help you locate a newspaper that was published in the area where your ancestor lived.
Innumerable books have been written on the African American experience in the United States. Of particular genealogical value is the printed catalog Afro-Americana, 1553-1906, published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which includes many valuable historical resources. Other helpful books include Black Genealogy by Charles L. Blockson and Ron Fry and Ethnic Genealogy: A Research Guide, edited by Jessie Carney Smith. These books have information about both pre- and post-1864 research.
For some tips on researching abroad, see the topic All about international resources.
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