Celebrating African American Family History, by Juliana Smith

African American family historians face unique challenges when it comes to researching their family’s past. During periods of discrimination, not only were African Americans segregated from their white counterparts, their records were sometimes also segregated. While beginning research for descendants of slaves may utilize similar records as those of other Americans, once they hit 1870, the search becomes much more complicated–but not impossible.

As with any family history research, one of the keys to success is laying a good foundation. Be sure to exhaust all home sources and interview every family member you can so that you can begin your search with as much information as possible. Ancestry.com has a growing collection of African American records that can help you build on that foundation.

Once you’ve gathered as much information as you can from family members, seek out U.S. Census records, vital records, military, and as many other late nineteenth and early twentieth century records as possible. When working with microfilms and registers, keep in mind that the records of African Americans may be separate from those of white people in a “colored” section toward the end of the record group. In the military, African Americans served in segregated units until the army was integrated in 1952.

There were also many free African Americans living in the United States prior to the Civil War. Tony Burrough’s book, Black Roots cites the fact that there were “more than 200,000 free Blacks living in the North and another 200,000 free in the South prior to the Civil War.”

In addition to core collections like directories, census, vital, and military records, here are a few collections available at Ancestry that you’ll want to search.

U.S. Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874
The year 1865 found many African American Civil War veterans and ex-slaves with money in their pockets and there was a need for an institution where they could save their money. The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (often referred to as the Freedman’s Bank) was incorporated on 03 March 1865 to meet that need. Unfortunately mismanagement and fraud led to the failure of that institution in 1874 wiping out the savings of many African Americans. While some were eventually able to recover about two-thirds of their savings, many never got any of their money back.

The signature registers of the Freedman’s Bank were preserved and eventually wound up in the National Archives, and in 2005, Ancestry.com indexed these records and made the index and images available to members. For purposes of identification, these registers asked personal questions of the account holder and as a result, many contain a goldmine of information regarding family structure. Names of spouses, children, parents, siblings, and even aunts and uncles can be found on the signature registers. Other information may include physical description, place of birth, residences, occupation, employer, and some earlier records will even include the names of former slave owners–a critical piece of information for tracing a slave beyond the Civil War. For more information, see the Prologue article on the National Archives website by Reginald Washington.
Below is a sample signature register. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Freedman's Bank record from Louisiana, 1866, 4/17



U.S. Freedmen Bureau Records of Field Offices, 1865-1872
The Civil War devastated the South, leaving former slaves and many whites destitute and homeless. Returning veterans came home to a ruined economy and the loss of their fortunes. Former slaves now had to seek employment and were thrust into a new social order. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (a.k.a., the Freedmen’s Bureau) was formed in 1865 to help rebuild the South and assist the many needs of these Southerners.

The records of the Freedmen’s Bureau include:

  • Labor Contracts
  • Letters (mostly to or from Washington, D.C.)
  • Applications for Rations
  • Monthly Reports of Abandoned Land
  • Monthly Reports of Clothing and Medicine Issued
  • Statistical School Reports
  • Court Trial Records
  • Hospital Records
  • Lists of Workers
  • Complaints Registered
  • Census Returns
  • Other

While these records aren’t currently searchable by name at Ancestry, they are broken down by state and record type and there is some interesting information in here for those who are willing to take the time to browse through it. I found quite a few hospital lists of admissions that included names, ages, dates of admission and discharge, death information, and illness. Another interesting item I found was under the Court Trial Records for Georgia. It was a Bounty Register that gave the soldier or sailor’s name, company and regiment, amount due, and when it was paid among other things. Click on the image below to see a page from the register.





Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Records
In addition to the above mentioned services, the Freedmen’s Bureau “legalized” the plantation marriages of many former slaves. These records have not yet been indexed, and the format varies by state, but many include names, ages, and residences; number of children; former “companions,” how many years they were together, and the reason for separation; and color of bride, groom, and both sets of parents. A really powerful example of what can be found in these records is this Arkansas register. Click on the image to enlarge it.



What Else?
In honor of Black History Month, Ancestry has created a landing page dedicated to African American research that is being sponsored by Walmart. There you’ll find helpful how-to articles, links to these and other Ancestry collections that will be helpful to African Americans seeking their family story. Click here to begin exploring your African American roots.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

4 thoughts on “Celebrating African American Family History, by Juliana Smith

  1. A little history on the original indexing of these records, excerpted from , dated 26 February 2001:

    SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – In honor of Black History Month, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the release of Freedman’s Bank Records on CD, a unique searchable database documenting several generations of African Americans immediately following the Civil War.
    The completion of the 11-year project was announced by Church officials during a teleconference between Salt Lake City and Washington D.C. News conferences were also held across the nation in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Denver, Houston, Dallas, Raleigh, Miami and St. Louis.
    The Freedman’s Bank project began in 1989 when Marie Taylor, an employee of the Family and Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, found the original microfilms of the records. She immediately recognized their significance: “When I discovered the Freedman’s Bank records I envisioned African Americans breaking the chains of slavery and forging the bonds of families.”
    Many genealogical researchers were aware of the existence of the Freedman’s Bank records, but little use had been made of the data because it lacked effective indexes. The records presented an irresistible challenge for Taylor, who soon enlisted the help of her friend Darius Gray. Together they embarked on a lengthy, personal project to unlock the information trapped in the records.
    Taylor asked inmates at the Utah State Prison, South Point Correctional Facility, to participate in the challenging project. The Church had previously established a family history center at the prison, where inmates voluntarily donate their time to family history projects. The one-of-a-kind facility occupies three rooms filled with microfilm readers, microfiche readers and 30 computer stations.
    The inmates extracted, linked and automated the 480,000 names contained in the Freedman’s Bank records. The entire process involved approximately 550 inmates who vied for the opportunity to contribute their free time to the project. Theirs was a freewill gift—not a prison work assignment.

    [Note: I was told that as they indexed, many of these prisoners broke down in tears. These supposedly hardened men were overwhelmingly touched by the heartbreaking stories that were reflected in the records.]

  2. The URL (for the excerpt) included with the above post was deleted. Hopefully, typing it into the “Leave a comment” Website box on this page will allow it to show. If not, go to familysearch dot org; near the bottom left-hand side, under News & Events, click See All, scroll down and click on the title, “Freedman’s Bank Records Expands African American Family History Research.” You can then see the complete article.

  3. Ah! While the URL itself does not show, clicking the link for my name on post #2 will take you directly to that article.

  4. I am a historian in Northeast Wilmington, DE. I’m currently working on a research project to uncover the history of Africans in the New Sweden Colony prior to 1700. If you can suggest any reference material that may help uncover what is considered by many to be a “lost history,” I would be very appreciative.

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