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Black Genealogy Basics

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Date: [unknown] [unknown]
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Surnames/tags: black_heritage slavery
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US Black Heritage Project Home Page

This page answers a few basic questions about USA Black/African-American genealogy and its unique challenges.


USA Black Genealogy General Hints

  1. Race on census records was either what the household member self-identified as OR was subjective based on the skin tone of that person as the census taker saw it. It is not uncommon to see the same person marked as Black, Mulatto, and White on three different census records. It's okay to note this information on a person's profile in the research notes.
  2. Information takers did not always take the same care with Black families. Many Black families did not know how to read/write because it was discouraged or even illegal for them to learn. Because of this, you will see terrible name misspellings and inaccuracies, ages that are as much as 10 years or more off, wrong birth locations, and incorrect relationships on records. It's important to put all records side by side and look for similarities.
  3. Relationships on documents are not always entirely accurate because families would often claim kinship based on how their household was structured. Examples: 1) Children in the household might call their stepmother their biological mother. 2) Grandchildren might call their grandparents their biological parents. 3) A common law spouse or other relatives might be enumerated as boarders. It is important to look for all the documents and study the family over time to determine correct relationships.
  4. Divorced or separated women often went back to their maiden names. You may see them in a census record with their birth family going by their maiden name while they are still married.
  5. Be careful of last names. You may see up to half a dozen different last names and various spellings across documents. It's important to study the family over time to determine which of the names is correct.
  6. It is not uncommon for a couple to marry AFTER they began having children together. Do not automatically assume a child born before a marriage belongs to a different mother or father.
  7. Because it was difficult and expensive for Black families to marry in some areas, couples may have lived together in common-law marriages (US Black Heritage Project recognizes these as marriages) or may have married some time after they lived together.
  8. Sometimes there will be look-alike families (same names in the family from the same area). In these cases, study all the records you can find side by side until you are able to find the differences and separate the two families.
  9. Do not assume families with the same last name living next door to each other on a census record are related (especially on the 1870 census). It is possible they were enslaved by the same person, and that is where their last name comes from.
  10. Because most enslaved ancestors were not allowed to read or write, they intentionally passed down family history from generation to generation. Therefore, oral history is an important source for Black genealogy. However, like any information that passes through time, it can become distorted and should be validated with documents whenever possible.
  11. Do not assume an unusual or unusually spelled first or middle name is spelled incorrectly. Look for additional documents to confirm the name.

USA Black Genealogy Hints Regarding Slavery

  1. Almost everyone born Black in the USA, whose ancestors were here before the time of the Civil War, has enslaved ancestors.
  2. Records for those enslaved are hard to find because they were not enumerated by name on census records before 1870 (unless they were Free People of Color). They might have been listed by first name only on wills and sale documents.
  3. Enslaved ancestors did not always go by their slave owner's last name. Sometimes they chose their own last name after freedom and sometimes they changed their last name at least once.
  4. Records DO exist for enslaved ancestors, but they are not readily available or indexed. These records are almost always linked to the slave owners or traders, or a plantation.

USA Black Genealogy Research Tips

  1. Transcripts of slave schedules often only count the first page enumerated for that slave owner. Look at the original document to see if entries continue on the next page.
  2. Because transcriptions of all types of documents are often incorrect, always check the original documents when possible.
  3. Often transcribers will count the number of lines as being the number of enslaved held, and they miss the fact that some enumerators used the first column to count the number of enslaved at that age, thereby affecting the count. Always check the original document to see how the owner was enumerated.
  4. Think about names phonetically, especially in areas where accents were more pronounced. For instance, a name enumerated as "Lucinder" is likely "Lucinda."
  5. Consider possible last name variations when searching for records. For instance, the last name Sale is often seen also as Sales, Sayles, Sails.

WikiTree's US Black Heritage Project Standards


Please see these links for more information


USBH uses the {{African-American Sticker}} on all profiles for Black Americans. This is for the purpose of honoring their heritage, counting how many Black profiles we have at WikiTree, and maintaining all Black profiles.

US Black Heritage Project
... ... ... is a part of US Black heritage.


We have these main category structures for Pre-Civil War:

  1. Slaves by county
  2. Slave Owners by county
  3. Free People of Color by state
  4. USBH Heritage Exchange


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