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Discover Your African American Roots

From plantation records to DNA testing, there's a wealth of genealogy tools at your disposal

Bobbi Bowman had been on the hunt for her African American roots for a long time. One day, she drove to a courthouse in rural Virginia and hit the jackpot.

See also: Find your Civil War ancestors

She knew her family had deep roots in Campbell County near Lynchburg, Va., and she knew a family name — Williamson. She waded through mountains of deeds and wills in the county courthouse to find her great-great grandmother — Maria Williamson (1825-1903), a former slave who inherited 100 acres after the Civil War from her husband, a white landowner. The family connections were spelled out in a deed.

African American family posed for portrait seated on lawn, 1899

The U.S. Census began counting African American families after the Civil War. — Courtesy Library of Congress

"If you are willing to spend a little time in your family courthouse, and have an unusual last name, you would be surprised. I was bowled over," said Bowman, a journalist from McLean, Va.

If you have toyed with the idea of tracing your own African Americans roots or are stumped by a branch in your family tree, here are some research tools to consider.

  • The U.S. Census began counting African Americans by name in 1870. It's a rich resource to get you started on your journey. The census is available online at through 1930. Look for details about families, occupations and place of birth.
  •, a subscription site that can be accessed for free at many libraries, has the world's largest collection of African American family history records, including slave census records, U.S. Colored Troops records, slave manifests and emancipation records.

    See the database of records from the Freedmen's Bureau, which was set up after the Civil War to assist slaves in making the transition to freedom and finding employment, and to help soldiers get back pay and pensions. Another resource is its database for the Southern Claims Commission, to review the claims of people who had property confiscated during the Civil War. It includes military records of claimants, letters, diaries and family Bible records. And it has also has Civil War records, including the U.S. Colored Troops documents.
  • Plantation records at universities and state historical societies are another good resource. Usually on microfilm, these records detail how plantations operated, the names of slaves and their children, and daily business operations. "It's a horrible record to look at because you see a listing of horses next to a listing of slaves," said Anastasia Harman, lead family historian for Tip: Check out universities near the site of an old plantation.

Next page: Books to help your African American genealogy search. »

  • Check county courthouses if you know where your family homestead was located. Look for wills, deeds and plantation account books that include slave births and deaths. Most are not online. Tips: Former slaves often took the slave owner's last name. Deeds include slave sales.
  • If you are in Washington, D.C., attend the Natural Archives and Records Administration (NARA) lectures on using their records for black family research.

    The NARA has a wealth of resources, most not online, including pension applications and records of pension payments for veterans, their widows and other heirs. Pension application files usually provide the most genealogical information, including pages from family Bibles, family letters and discharge papers. One shortcut: Check out military service records and pension files online at, a subscription database, or see NARA's tips for searching military records.
  • DNA testing is one sure way to connect with family, but it costs hundreds of dollars. Go to and for details. These sites contain hundreds of names of people who have been tested and databases to connect with people who match your DNA.

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