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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 FamilySearch.org through 1930. Look for details about families, occupations and place of birth.
  • Ancestry.com, 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 Ancestry.com 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 Ancestry.com. Tip: Check out universities near the site of an old plantation.

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

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