The Great Migration: How to Find Your African-Americans Ancestors

Posted by Karin Berry on January 28, 2015 in Guest Bloggers, Research

This is a guest post by Karin Berry.

During the Great Migration, 6 million African-Americans migrated to the North between 1910 to 1930. How can you trace their movement? It’s simple: Think like an immigrant.

When the Great Migration, which occurred decades after slaves were freed, is approached as internal migration within the United States, it’s easy to apply the same methods as those used with immigrants from Europe. U.S. census records, birth, marriage and death certificates, military records, newspapers, and city directories, are great resources to start.

This post is the first in a series of three that will describe how to use Ancestry to research African-Americans during the Great Migration. For this one, we will cover how to get started using the U.S. Census. The second post will reveal records that will help you trace your family between 1910 and 1930. The third post will list additional records and techniques to find your family, including former slaves.

Why They Left

Similar to European immigrants, African-Americans migrated for economic reasons. They also left the South to flee racism and violence, to escape the system of racial segregation called Jim Crow, and to find jobs in Northern factories during the labor shortage created by soldiers departing for World War I. Most of the early migrants went to New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Detroit. By the 1940s and World War II, they moved to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland, California, as well as Seattle and Portland, Washington.

Searching Step-by-Step

To start, gather as much detailed information as you can about your family. The goal is to discover exactly where they lived in the “old country” – the South. Ask family members for the names of your relatives and whether they know the town and state where your Southern ancestors lived.

Next, find those family members in the 1940 U.S. Census. They may be living in the North by this time. Check that census to find out the state where they were born. The 1940 census also asked for their “Residence, April 1, 1935,” which tells where they lived on that date. This will tell you the city (or town or village), county, and state where the family lived five years earlier. If it is in a different location from their home in 1940, and in the South, you’re closer to uncovering your Southern roots. Compare it to the information in the birth field. Do the states match up? Continue to search for your family in censuses going back every 10 years, checking each previous census for your family’s location.

Example: Nathaniel Long and his wife Lucretia (née Evans), migrated from Caswell County, North Carolina, to Xenia, Ohio, around 1900. Their departure from the South spurred the migration of family and friends from Caswell County to Greene and Clark counties in Ohio starting the same year and in 1901. Family members and at least one acquaintance left North Carolina and moved to Ohio through the years until about 1920.

From Ancestry: The U.S. Census image of Nathaniel (identified here as Nat), Lucretia (identified as Lucie) and five of their children – Alexander, Lugenia, Davie, Mary J and Cora B — lived in Caswell County in 1900.

Karin Barry_1

The family moved to Ohio before 1910. Here is the Census image of Nathaniel, Lucretia and three of their children, Cora, Rosa and Robert, in 1910 in Xenia, Ohio.

Karin Barry_2

Next: Locate all available records on your family. You can find further clues by using vital records in the state the family migrated to: birth, marriage and death certificates. I went after vital records for the children of Nathaniel and Lucretia Long and that search yielded seven marriage certificates and four death certificates for five of their children. All of the children were born in North Carolina. The birth county was identified as Alamance County for son Alexander. Yanceyville, in neighboring Caswell County, was the birth county for daughter Sadie. They all got married in Ohio between 1906 and 1933.

Coming up in the next post: The records that will help you trace your family between 1910 and 1930.


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