How To Start Researching Your African American Family History

If you’re just setting out on researching your family history, you have a fascinating but challenging journey ahead.

I’ve put together the top ten areas to start with.

Oral History

If possible, you should start your research by gathering information from family members.

This can provide valuable insights into names, dates, and locations.

Although this article has advice on using archives, the personal stories of your relatives may not be available in written records.

Vital Records

The term “vital records” refers to birth, marriage, and death certificates.

These documents can provide essential details about your ancestors, such as full names, dates, and places of events.

Some records can have details about other relatives.

For example, parents may be recorded on marriage certificates. This can get you back a generation.

The most convenient way to search historical vital records is through large online genealogy archives. is a free archive. is a subscription site that gives free access to some collections.

In this case, the vital records are paid access. But some other collections I mention in this article ar available for free.

Census Records

Census records can reveal information about your ancestors’ households, occupations, and birthplaces.

African Americans have been enumerated in U.S. census records since 1870, the first census after emancipation.

Prior to that, the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules can provide some information about enslaved individuals.

However, they usually list only the slave owner’s name and a description of the enslaved person.

Historical census records are available for online search on and (and elsewhere).

Freedmen’s Bureau Records

The Freedmen’s Bureau was established after the Civil War to assist newly emancipated African Americans in various aspects of life.

The records can provide information about marriages, labor contracts, and other life events.

I have lot more details in this article on researching Freedmen’s Bureau records.

Military Records

Black Americans have served in every major U.S. conflict since the Revolutionary War.

Researching military records can provide insight into your ancestor’s military service, including their rank, unit, and service dates.

Slave Narratives

An organization called the Works Progress Administration collected first-hand accounts of slavery collected during the late 1930s.

These records can provide valuable insight into the lives of enslaved African Americans.

I have a separate in-depth article on using the slave narratives for family research.

Church Records

Churches often recorded baptisms, marriages, and burials.

Many African American churches also kept membership records and minutes of church meetings.

Newspaper Archives

Local newspapers may contain obituaries, marriage announcements, and other information about your ancestors.

African American newspapers, published in various cities, can provide unique insights into the lives of African Americans during specific time periods.

Websites And Online Resources

There are many online resources specifically for African American genealogy.

This includes sites such as the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS) and the International African American Museum’s Center for Family History.

DNA Tests

DNA testing can help you trace your genetic heritage. It can potentially connect you to living relatives or ancestral communities in Africa.