However, it is possible, and there are loads of DNA testing tools and family tree builders available to streamline the process. Here, we outline 10 ways you could begin researching your African American roots.
1. Speak With Family Members
This may seem obvious, but you would be amazed by how much information you can gather just by speaking with a few family members. Older relatives can be especially knowledgeable about your ancestry, and it’s always worth spending a little time finding out what they know.
Even if their information isn’t always accurate, it will still give you a good place to start your research. There’s also a chance that you will find another family member who is interested in or has already completed genealogy research of their own. You may be able to pool your resources and work together to reach your goals.
Remember not to confine your inquiries to immediate family. Distant relatives such as aunts, uncles, and cousins may also be able to share valuable insights about your family’s history.
2. Gather Information From Sources Like Newspaper Archives
When you’re starting your research, it’s important to take advantage of as many potential information sources as possible. Confining your efforts will almost always be detrimental and will make it hard to find the details you require.
We’d suggest starting by compiling a list of the history and information you do know. With this, you can direct your search and look for specific files or records through various channels, including local historical societies and libraries. Personal items such as family bibles, old journals or letters, and photographs can be especially useful here.
Let’s say, for example, that you know a story of a family member who performed a particularly memorable action in the 19th century. If you know enough about it, you may be able to find more information in local newspaper archives. It is also worth digging into local church records if your family has religious roots. And don’t forget to check things like obituaries.
3. Take a DNA Test
Modern DNA tests are becoming increasingly accurate, and they can be used to gather information about your ethnic heritage. This may not provide a lot of history regarding your African American roots, but taking a test can still provide useful insights into any other ethnicities you should be looking for in your family tree.
Companies such as MyHeritage DNA offer highly affordable DNA tests, although the results they spit out can be a little generic. More detailed results are available through companies such as GPS Origins, which can map your ethnicity to more than 900 regions across the world.
One of the most attractive things about DNA tests is that they are simple and easy to use. You will receive a sample kit in the mail, and you will simply have to add a DNA sample (usually by swabbing the inside of your cheek) and return the kit. You should receive results within 4 to 6 weeks, although this can vary by company.
4. Use Genealogy Software
Another great tool is modern genealogy software, which can be used to record information about your search and help you direct your future efforts. There are numerous platforms on the market, and most come with excellent family tree builders that you can use to visualize your results.
On top of this, some genealogy programs are coupled with comprehensive databases containing a vast amount of information about names, family history, and various other things. For example, Ancestry comes with loads of research tools that automatically provide information about added family members. Once you add someone to your family tree, relevant information will be linked to their profile.
Another great feature of most genealogy programs is that they include streamlined sharing features. This will enable you to share the family tree you’ve created with other interested family members. It also makes it super easy to collaborate with your relatives during your search for information.
5. Take Advantage of Census History
With enough time and effort, it should be possible to trace your family history back for at least 100 years using the US census records. Federal censuses are completed every 10 years, and they contain a wealth of information about citizens at the time.
It is important to note that enslaved individuals weren’t usually included in the census. This may make records difficult to find pre-1865, when slavery was abolished. Records are also only available to the public after 72 years.
To get started, we’d suggest heading to the official US National Archives website and browsing the census records page. Here, you can search the records online and, hopefully, find out more about your African American roots. Begin with information about family members you know about and attempt to trace them back through time.
Remember to record every little detail you find—you never know what might be important in the future.
6. Check Archives That Help Identify Enslaved People
Although it remains a sensitive topic, slavery is an unfortunate part of American history. A majority of African Americans are descended from slaves, so it’s important not to discount this during your research.
If, for example, you can trace your family back to 1870 in the census records, but you can’t find any mention of them in the 1860 census, there’s a good chance that they were enslaved. If this is the case, we’d suggest trying to find more information about their slave owner(s).
7. Consider Potential Name Changes Over Time
Another particularly important thing to remember is that your family name may have changed over time. Pay particular attention to any information you come across that suggests that this may be the case, as it could be very useful to you.
For example, let’s say that you’ve managed to trace a particular family member back to the 1910 census but are having trouble finding them in the 1900 records. If you suspect a name change, try to look for people with a similar first name and age living in the same area.
8. Don’t Forget Immigration Records
The majority of African Americans have enslaved ancestors, but there is a small percentage of free settlers who came to the country of their own free will. If you suspect that your family—or certain family members of the family—have immigrated voluntarily, be sure to check the immigration records.
This can be particularly useful for African Americans with mixed heritage. Let’s say, for example, that a DNA test shows that you have 25% European and 12% Chinese heritage. Once you’ve found links to these branches of your family, you can use the immigration records to find out exactly when and how they entered the country.
9. Ask for Help on Online Forums and Discussion Boards
You’re not alone in your search for answers about your African American history. Collaborating with other interested parties can not only be motivating and make the search more fun, but it can also lead to huge amounts of information that you would never have found otherwise.
A good place to start is to search online forums and discussion boards. Search for local genealogy groups in your area, and don’t hesitate to reach out to the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society for a chat or to find more resources.
10. Keep Clear Records of Your Research
There’s nothing worse than spending hours of research, only to have your computer crash or phone die and lose it all. Keeping clear records is especially important when it comes to research into your African American heritage, as you may find yourself adding new information for months or even years.
The genealogy programs we mentioned above represent one excellent way to keep records. However, we’d also suggest maintaining some sort of physical or digital archive containing important information and records that you can look back on. It’s also a good idea to get in the habit of taking notes during your research sessions so you don’t forget anything.
Researching African American roots has traditionally been a difficult process due to incomplete record-keeping and the atrocities associated with slavery. However, modern resources and technology continue to streamline the process, making African American genealogy accessible to everyone.
If you want to find out more about your roots, we’d suggest starting by speaking with your family members. Don’t hesitate to use tools such as DNA tests and genealogy software, and draw on all the resources at your disposal. Connecting with other interested parties can also be a good idea.
Make sure that you keep a clear record of your research at all times. And above all, don’t be discouraged if you don’t seem to be making much progress. Genealogy is difficult, and tracing your African American roots could take you months, if not years. But the results will be worth it.