Posted by Karin Berry on April 14, 2015 in Website

This is the second in the series of three guest posts by Karin Berry that describe how to use Ancestry to research African-Americans during the Great Migration. The first blog post explained how to find your family and trace them in northern states using U.S. federal census records. This second blog post will reveal how to incorporate military records and city directories in your research.

During the Great Migration, 6 million African-Americans migrated from the U.S. South to the North between 1910 and 1930. How can you trace your family’s journey? It’s simple. Think as if you were tracing an immigrant. The Great Migration occurred decades after slaves were freed. When this period is approached as internal migration within the United States, it’s easy to apply the same methods as those used to trace European immigrants.

Similar to European immigrants, African-Americans migrated for economic reasons. They were also fleeing racial violence.  Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, a report created by the Equal Justice Initiative, documented 3,959 lynchings of African-Americans in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950.

African-Americans also left the South to escape the repressive 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, the list of popular migration destinations grew to include Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland, California, as well as Seattle and Portland, Washington.

U.S. military records and city directories are rich sources of information about African-Americans.

Find Men in Military Records

Draft registrations for both World War I and World War II  yield valuable information such as birth date, birth location, age, physical description, profession, spouse and/or employer. For example, here is the image of the World War I draft registration for Robert B. Clark, in Norwood, East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. He was age 36, born on Dec. 11, 1881. He was a carpenter, and worked for Mason & Stanger in Jacksonville, Tennessee. The nearest relative listed is his wife Cora, also living in Norwood, Louisiana. Oral history said that Clark was African-American and that he was so light-skinned that he could pass for white. He is identified as white on this draft registration.


Clark lived long enough to register for the “Old Man’s Draft” for World War II. He was 58, and lived with his daughter Sybil in Chicago in 1942. His birth year was different from the World War I draft registration, but the birth month and day are the same. Clark worked as a janitor for Drape & Kramer, 341 E. 47th, in Chicago. His race is not noted and he is described as having a “light” complexion.




Once you find a man in the draft registrations, confirm his identity by matching the information on the registration with other records, such as U.S. census records. Clark (identified as mulatto) and his wife Cora (nee Mills), were both born in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, and lived in Norwood, Louisiana, in 1920. Clark and his wife had six children: Walter, Peter, Robert, Randolph, William and Edgar.


By 1930, the family had moved north to Chicago. In 1930, they had two more children and were now parents of eight children: Walter G., Peter M., Robert B. Jr., Randolph, Edgar A., Mabel C., Sybil A., and Pauline M.  Others in the household included Cora’s sister, Mabel Edwards, and boarder Frank Mills, both divorced. Other boarders in the Clark household included Douglas and Gertrude George, and Camille Vaughan.


When we find the family in the 1940 census, Robert, now widowed, was living in Chicago with his children Walter, Edgar, Aurelia, Mabel, Sybil, Pauline and grandchildren Walter Jr. and Joan.

The family had lived in the same place in 1935.

1940 Census

City Directories

The city directory,  which is a lot like the phone book without the telephone numbers, is an effective way to trace family members as they migrated northward, especially if they left during those 10 long years between federal censuses. According to Ancestry, “Generally a city directory will contain an alphabetical list of citizens, listing the names of the heads of households, their addresses, and occupational information. Sometimes a wife’s name will be listed in parentheses or italics following the husband’s. Other helpful information might include death dates for individuals who had been listed in the previous year’s directory, names of partners in firms, and forwarding addresses or post offices for people who had moved to another town.” Download 6 Things to Find in City Directories for more information.

Many city directories identified African-Americans by race using “(c)” or “(col.)” for colored, or “(Neg.)” for Negro in the entries. Some directories segregated African-Americans. The 1922 Baton Rouge city directory had a “Colored” section that included categories for schools and “Secret Societies, etc.,” and stated that, “Names marked * are those of colored persons.” These designations were often used inconsistently, identifying African-Americans by race one year, but not in other years. For this reason, you may need to  use other methods, such as vital records, to confirm that the entries are those of your family members.

Locate extended family in city directories in all of the states in which they lived, wherever possible, so that you can track them year-by-year. Directories can help confirm marital and familial relationships as well. In 1909, North Carolina native Tena Enoch, identified as the widow of Bedford Enoch, lived on 237 Fair in Springfield, Ohio (first image below), with her granddaughter Minnie, who is married to Nathaniel Long’s son Alex (second image below showing the same address). Also listed in the first image is Tena and Bedford’s grandson John L. Enoch, a grocery store owner, and his wife Lillie.

In the second image, Alex’s brother David Long, a laborer, lived on 633 Miami with his wife Bertha E. All of the Longs and Enochs were born in North Carolina and migrated to Ohio starting around 1900.



As you continue to trace your family through directories, you’ll note changes in the families. Nathaniel Long appears in the 1915 City directory for Xenia, Ohio with his new wife Mary. His first wife, Lucretia, had died in 1912. Bertha Long, widowed after the death of her husband David (Nathaniel and Lucretia’s son), now lives on 907 E 2d. All of their entries are marked “c” for colored, which helps confirm their identity.


Directories can also give you details about occupations. According to the 1922 city directory for Xenia, Ohio, Nathaniel and Lucretia’s son Rev. Edward N Long lived with his wife Rachel. He is identified as pastor of Triumph Holiness Church and the couple lived on 2 Patton. Rachel has a separate entry, and is identified as a stemmer for Xenia Stemmery.


In the 1930 city directory for Xenia, Nathaniel was a laborer and lived on 1032 E Main. Son Edward and his wife Rachael lived with him. Nathaniel’s wife Mary had died between 1922 and 1930 and is no longer listed. There is an entry for Edward D. Long, pastor of Union Tabernacle, but because of the difference in the middle initial (D instead of N), there would have to be further research done to determine whether he is the same Edward Long.


Coming up in the next post: Where to search for former slaves and researching African-Americans in newspapers.

Karin Berry

Karin D. Berry has researched her family history since 1988. She specializes in writing about African-American genealogy research methods. Her articles, book reviews and op-ed articles have been published in Essence, Black Enterprise, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Macon Telegraph, the Baltimore Sun, the Evening Sun, Emerge, the Philadelphia Daily News and on and


  1. Mattie

    This is very informative. My father migrated to the north during the 1930’s. He paved the way for his three brothers to join him. Her research is very extensive. She gives some good illustrations also. Looking forward to the next subject

  2. anne huffman

    WOW! what an informative article. Very insightful and has helped me to reopen my thoughts to some of my brick walls. great job, looking forward to more contributions.

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