Genealogy begins with recording memories of our childhood and relationships
with family members. We record things like: Who lived in the household?
What relatives visited on birthdays and holidays; and Where the family
traveled to see relatives and friends, among other details.
Next we interview relatives to obtain stories of their childhoods, as
well as what they remember of the past, which can extend beyond our memories.
We also seek their remembrances of older relatives and ancestors.
After these two important steps are completed, researchers should turn
to family records. These are papers lying around the house that family
members have saved and placed in scrapbooks, albums, desks, and dresser
drawers. These are sometimes things we take for granted, like:
After researching individual ancestors for weeks, months, or even years,
it is a lot of fun and very exciting to locate an obituary for an ancestor.
Obituaries are short biographies on recently deceased individuals, usually
published in newspapers. They notify the public that a person died and contain
basic facts of the person's life and sometimes a wealth of information.
When all we have of an ancestor's life is a date and place of birth, death,
and marriage, locating an obituary can be very rewarding. An obituary can
paint a picture of the ancestor's life and provide the names of other relatives.
- driver's licenses
- insurance papers
- funeral programs
You never know if an obituary exists for an ancestor until you search
the newspapers. Finding an obituary for an ancestor may sound like finding
a needle in a haystack, but if you have a strategy, your search can be
productive. Below I will outline a five point strategy for locating obituaries
for African Americans.
Start by noting the deceased persons on your Family
Group Sheets. Thorough searches should be conducted to locate obituaries
for each one of your ancestors. Fortunately, many obituaries were clipped
and saved by family members. So the first place to look for obituaries
is from family members. When doing oral history, always ask if family
members kept any newspaper obituaries. Sometimes they were saved and placed
in scrapbooks, photograph albums, purses, dresser drawers, and shoe boxes.
When I started tracing my family history, my Aunt Doris shared an obituary
from an ancestor who died in 1927, Ella Batch Simmons. The obituary reveals
her date of death, birth date, residence, parents' names, siblings and
their residences, children, minister, the name of the church she attended,
and the name of the cemetery where she is buried.
If an obituary for a particular ancestor was not saved by family members,
but the exact date and place of death is known, an obituary can be obtained
directly from an old newspaper in the library. The exact date of death
can be determined from death certificates, cemetery records, funeral home
records, insurance and pension records, Social Security death records,
and sometimes military records. Then newspapers should be searched for
an obituary for up to ten days after the death, longer in weekly papers.
Contact the local library where the death occurred and see if they have
copies of the newspaper for the location and time period when the death
occurred. Old newspapers are usually preserved on microfilm, and also
sometimes found in historical societies, archives, and university libraries.
I searched for an obituary for my great-grandfather Morris Burroughs
who died in Chicago in 1903. Much to my surprise, there was a notice in
the Chicago Tribune. But unfortunately, it was not actually an
obituary. It was merely a "Death Notice" compiled from data received from
the Board of Health. But it was another piece of evidence I was able to
collect, verifying his date and place of death.
Unknown by the average person, there were thousands of newspapers published
by African Americans. Fortunately, someone has assembled a list of them.
Barbara Henritzie compiled a list of over 5,000 African American newspapers
(including some magazines) in, Bibliographic Checklist of African-American
Newspapers (GPC, 1995). The checklist identifies newspapers published
in hundreds of cities dating back to 1827.
If you identify a newspaper from the Bibliographic Checklist of African-American
Newspapers, there are several sources for locating copies of the newspapers.
First ask the reference librarian of your local library (or the periodicals
librarian) if they have a copy of either, Newspapers in Microform,
United States 1948-1972 (Library of Congress, 1973) which lists 34,289
titles held by 843 libraries and forty-eight corporations, or American
Newspapers, 1821-1936: A Union List of Files Available in the United States
and Canada edited by Winifred Gregory (Kraus reprint, 1967) which
lists newspaper holdings of 5,700 depositories. These directories will
list locations of thousands of newspapers which may be available on interlibrary
Additionally, the State Historical
Society of Wisconsin has been identifying and cataloguing all known
copies of African American newspapers that exist in the United States.
Contact the State Historical Society (Periodical Department; 816 State
Street; Madison, WI 53706) and they'll tell you if they've located a copy,
and where you can see it. When their project is completed, the directory
will be available in libraries and archives around the country.
In 1953, under the direction of Armistead Scott Pride, director of the
Lincoln University School of Journalism (Jefferson City, MO), the Library
of Congress microfilmed over 400 hundred African American newspapers.
This microfilmed set is titled, Negro Newspapers on Microfilm and
is available at many major libraries and research institutions around
the country. If it is not available in the library in your area, ask the
reference librarian to conduct an OCLC search to determine the nearest
location. The collection might be available at a nearby college or university
Obituaries can serve another function. If an exact date of death is not
known for an ancestor, but a general location and approximate time frame
is known, sometimes the exact date and place of death can be revealed
in an obituary. In this case, the obituary is not only used to obtain
personal information on the deceased, it is used to determine the exact
date and place of death.
Locating an obituary for an ancestor without the exact date and
place of death is sometimes not as hard as it sounds, especially if
you have an index. And we know all genealogists love indexes!
Many indexes of local newspapers were created and they are a gold mine
for genealogists. There are indexes of local newspapers and African American
newspapers. Ten current African American newspapers are indexed in Black
Newspapers Index edited by Beth Haendiges and published by UMI. It
covers 1985 to the present. Prior to 1985 the index was published by Bell
and Howell Co. and titled, Index to Black Newspapers which covered
1977 to 1984.
Mary Mace Spradling's In Black and White (Gale Research, 1980,
2 volumes and Supplement) references over 21,000 African American individuals
and groups appearing in newspapers, magazines, books and other publications.
Although it consists primarily of people making notable contributions,
and obituaries are not cited specifically, it is well worth a look.
Early newspaper indexing of African Americans was conducted by James
de T. Abajian, a San Francisco librarian when he edited, Blacks in
Selected Newspapers, Censuses, and Other Sources: An Index to Names and
Subjects. This three volume set indexes African Americans appearing
in forty-three newspapers and thirteen periodicals from 1842 to 1948.
Mr. Abajian lived in San Francisco, California and most of the newspapers
were published in the West, but a few eastern publications are included.
I found two Pennsylvania ancestors listed from the Cleveland Gazette.
These were deaths occurring in Pennsylvania but reported in an Ohio newspaper!
So there didn't even have to be a newspaper published in the town or area
your ancestor lived in to have an obituary in a newspaper. A two-volume
supplement to Abajian's index was published in 1985.
To go back even further, Donald Jacobs indexed four Black newspapers
from 1827 to 1841 in, Antebellum Black Newspapers: Indices to NY Freedom's
Journal 1827-1829, The Rights of All 1829, Weekly Advocate 1837, and The
Colored American 1837-1841, (Greenwood Press, 1976). Of course most
of these are so early they won't be of current help for most people. But
some African American lineages with free northern roots before the Civil
War are easily extended into this period. The Kaiser Index to Black
Resources, 1948 - 1986 (Carlson Publishing, 1992) indexes a few obituaries,
but most are of prominent persons.
In addition to general newspaper indexes, there are also indexes exclusively
of obituaries in newspapers. Lori Husband, an African American genealogist
in Chicago, indexed obituaries of African Americans appearing in the Chicago
Defender from 1910 to 1920. This is a tremendous source and now work
has begun on the next ten years of the Chicago Defender. Researchers
are needed to index obituaries in other African American newspapers. The
work is not difficult, it's just time consuming and meticulous work. But
it will make a wonderful contribution to the field of genealogy and will
assist many genealogists and historians beyond our lifetime.
The Journal of Negro History also published obituaries of who
they called, "Leaders of the Negro race." An index of 200 obituaries of
these African Americans was published in volume 57 (October 1972, 447-454).
Betty M. Jarboe compiled a list of hundreds of published obituaries,
divided by states in, Obituaries: A Guide to Sources (G. K. Hall,
second ed. 1989). Although not all sources listed are obituaries, (she
includes marriages and biographies) she frequently mentions obituaries
for African Americans. And, Anita Check Milner edited a three volume set
titled, Newspaper Indexes: A Location and Subject Guide for Researchers
(Scarecrow, 1977-82). It is a state-by-state listing of newspapers which
have been indexed and the location of the index files.
Another tremendous, albeit painful, source for African American obituaries,
are records of lynchings. There were thousands of African Americans lynched
or brutally murdered during the period between the Civil War and the 1960's.
Ralph Ginsburg compiled a list of 5,000 lynchings occurring in the United
States (100 Years of Lynchings, Black Classic Press reprint, 1988).
All the lynchings are listed alphabetically by state, many of which are
accompanied by newspaper articles of the incident. Whereas many of the
articles are not actually obituaries, they are newspaper records of deaths
and many list relatives' names and describe the circumstances of the lynching.
Often times we neglect, or try to forget, unpleasant experiences in the
past, but this is one grim reminder. We often run into stone walls when
trying to get oral history from relatives, and this is sometimes the reason.
A family member being lynched is a horrible tragedy and one that can cause
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So it is conceivable why it might be difficult
getting an older relative to talk about a tragic event. Fortunately, the
records survived because they can explain family situations and circumstances.
Many an African American family moved North because a relative or neighbor
was lynched or murdered.
A fourth source for obituaries are "newspaper clipping files." Some libraries,
archives and historical societies created files of newspaper clippings.
The librarians, or volunteers, searched newspapers and clipped obituaries
and general news items and then placed the clippings in files or in scrapbooks.
Sometimes these clippings were microfilmed.
The largest African American clipping file is the Tuskegee Institute
Newspaper Clipping Files. Students at Tuskegee Institute, in Tuskegee,
Alabama, regularly clipped articles from newspapers mentioning African
Americans. Arthur Ashe based much of his heralded series, African Americans
in Sport, on information obtained from the Tuskegee clipping files.
Fortunately for African American genealogists, the collection has been
microfilmed and there are four reels of film containing obituaries from
1912 to 1966 (Necrology File; there are also 15 reels of lynchings from
1899 to 1966). Hampton University in Virginia also created a clipping
file (Index to Hampton University Newspaper Clipping File, Nicholas
Natanson ed. Chadwyck-Healey, 1990) and the Nicholas Natanson, a branch
of the Nicholas Natanson, also maintained a clipping file (Index to
the Schomburg Clipping File, Chadwyck-Healey, 1986). There are many
subjects in the index to the clipping files, but unfortunately none are
titled obituaries, deaths, or necrology.
And lastly, obituaries can be obtained directly from some libraries,
archives, museums, historical societies and genealogical societies. Many
of these institutions index and clip obituaries mentioning people in their
local communities. So it is always wise to consult the local institution
in the area where your ancestors lived to see if they maintain an obituary
file or index of the local paper.
One of my great-grandfathers was a Buffalo
Soldier. After he mustered out of the service, he worked at Fort Robinson
in Nebraska. When I contacted the curator at Fort Robinson, I learned
they had an obituary file. He checked the file and located an obituary
for my ancestor, published in the local paper in 1905. Even though I already
knew a lot about this ancestor (from family members, census records, tax
records and military records) this obituary gave me plenty of new information,
found nowhere else.
I also contacted the public library in Uniontown, Pennsylvania when I
learned of their obituary file index. Fortunately they had a listing for
my great-great-great grandfather's brother, who was said to have lived
to be over one hundred years old. They called him "Old Uncle Davie." I
calculated he died between 1900 and 1910. The obituary confirmed he died
in 1903. But the amazing thing was, the obituary stated he was the "oldest
man living in Pennsylvania at 107!"
Obituaries will often lead to other genealogical sources. When things
like occupations, religion, military service and similar details are mentioned,
be sure to follow up research in these new sources.
Obituaries can add life to your ancestors, and sometimes provide a wealth
of information. They can be a lot of fun, and they're not hard to research.
But you must make a concerted and exhaustive effort to look for them. And
don't just look in the African American newspapers and indexes. Your ancestor
could be listed in the local newspaper, like some of mine. There are also
religious newspapers that should be consulted. The AME Christian Recorder
is an excellent source. I also located an excellent obituary index for Southern
Christian Advocate at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
It contained obituaries for the slave owning families I'm researching.
To summarize, five sources for locating obituaries for ancestors are:
- Family records
- Directly from newspapers (local and African American)
- Newspaper and obituary indexes
- Newspaper clipping files
- Obituary files in libraries, historical societies and museums
All the information located in an obituary may not be accurate and true.
Like any genealogical source, details should be verified with other records.
Normally the informant for the source of the information is not given;
so it is by definition, a secondary source, not a primary record.
Obituaries are a source that should be researched by all beginning and
intermediate genealogists. You'll be glad you did. Those of you who call
yourself advanced genealogists, and haven't checked out this source, I