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by Curt B. Witcher, FUGA

(Ancestry Magazine, Sept/Oct 1997, Vol. 15, No. 5)



Conducting successful African American genealogical research can be a

challenging adventure. In recent years, the challenge has been lessened and the

adventure heightened by the growing body of publications relating to this

ethnic group. Special-interest groups and genealogical societies nationwide are

publishing key guides, new bibliographies, and important how-to books. Before

delving into published sources, however, it is always important to pause long

enough to organize one's own personal papers and review standard research



Important in any genealogical investigation as a part of sound research

methodology, but particularly key when researching African American ancestors,

is the process of framing one's research within the proper context. Some

veteran researchers simply call this process "contexting." Contexting involves:

(1) understanding what is transpiring in the nation, state, county, and city

for the particular time period being researched; (2) knowing the migration,

naming, prejudice, and settlement patterns of the particular family and ethnic

group being investigated; (3) understanding the religious, benevolent,

political, and other special organizations which might have been extant in the

geographic area and may have interacted with the ethnic group in question; and

(4) being cognizant of the implications laws, codes, and regulations may have

had on the creation, maintenance, and location of pertinent historical records.

The revised edition of "The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy" (Salt

Lake City: Ancestry, 1997) includes a very useful chapter entitled "Tracking

African American Family History." The chapter provides genealogists with an

excellent foundation for researching this ethnic group, detailing various types

of records, the types of information they contain, and where one can locate

them. The chapter also has a generous number of notes and concludes with a



There are many important resources for the researcher of African American

family history. One of these is the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical

Society. Joining this society is a wise move for the family historian

interested in this ethnic group. Another helpful resource is a massive tome

dealing with the African American military experience entitled "Black

Soldiers-Black Sailors-Black Ink: Research Guide on African-Americans in U. S.

Military History, 1526-1900," compiled by Thomas Truxtun Moebs (Chesapeake Bay,

VA: Moebs Publishing Co., 1994). Nearly 1700 pages, this work is largely a

bibliography of sources, arranged in several major sections to assist the

researcher in accessing specific materials. The first section is a bibliography

of writings by African Americans, followed by an annotated chronology. The next

two sections contain a subject bibliography with author cross-references, and a

listing of unit histories from 1729 to 1900. Ten appendixes round out the

publication, covering more than four hundred pages. United States Colored

Troops' regimental records, Congressional Medal of Honor winners, Confederate

publications, and portraits of veterans can be found in these appendixes.

What makes this work particularly useful is its comprehensiveness. While many

genealogists initially prefer publications which provide family names with

associated vital events and family data, comprehensive bibliographies, properly

used, certainly can be worth one's research time. Such bibliographies provide

the researcher with a vast collection of resources crucial to establishing the

proper context in which to conduct research, as well as citations to records

that can be searched for more family-specific data. Citation analysis, the

process of looking through the citations, notes, and bibliographies of

published materials for further leads and resources, is a less-frequently-used

but quite worthwhile endeavor for family historians. This process assists one

in finding as much supporting documentation as possible while working to

acquire the maximum amount of primary source materials.


At the recent American Library Association annual meeting, an important work

for African American researchers, Black Heritage Sites: An African American

Odyssey and Finder's Guide, by Nancy C. Curtis, Ph.D. (Chicago: American

Library Association, 1996), received the prestigious Denali Press Award. This

award is given to reference works of outstanding quality and significance that

furnish information about ethnic and minority groups in the United States. This

compilation, arranged by general geographic region within the country, yields

much detail about a significant number of historic sites. The material is very

useful for building a context within which to conduct area-specific research,

and also supplies some potentially useful family data. Each section contains

endnotes, as well as a bibliography of works consulted by the author.


As with other areas of genealogical research, periodical literature plays a

vital part in African American family history. There are a significant number

of African American historical and genealogical societies which publish

newsletters and quarterlies. There are also special issues of local, regional,

and state genealogical periodicals focusing on African American records and

research methodology, as well as numerous articles in geographically-based


One of these special issues is unique-volume fourteen of the Journal of

Confederate History series (Atlanta, GA: Southern Heritage Press, 1995). This

particular volume has a series title which accurately describes the nearly two

hundred pages of text: "Forgotten Confederates: An Anthology about Black

Southerners." And what an anthology it is!

The work contains a number of heavily footnoted articles on the role of African

Americans in the Confederacy. A number of these notes may very well lead to

sources of data that are vital for particular family history research. Other

articles contain abstracts and lists from compiled military records, extensive

biographical sketches, obituaries, veterans' narratives, and selected

correspondence. The issue is completed with a bibliography of sources for the

study of African American Confederates. A compilation such as this special

issue challenges the researcher to investigate all possibilities and search for

a wide range of records while engaging in Civil War-era African American

genealogical research. It also challenges the researcher to seek facts and

rigorous documentation rather than give credence to stereotypes and information

found in undocumented general-history texts.


The Internet can play a key role in assisting those engaged in African American

research. There are a number of excellent sites which assist the researcher in

locating historical data, help identify individuals who are working on

particular family lines, and provide a means for networking. A number of these

sites can be easily located by using one of the many Internet search engines,

such as Yahoo ( or Altavista

(, or by visiting some of the more popular

genealogy sites, such as Cyndi's List (, and looking

for the ethnic or African American pages at the site.

The Afrigeneas Homepage

( is an excellent

example of the type of information researchers can find when looking for

African American genealogy sources on the Internet. The page is well organized

and contains numerous links to important genealogical resources worldwide. From

this home page, one can subscribe to the Afrigeneas mailing list, a place where

queries can be asked and answered, significant research discoveries can be

shared, and information about upcoming symposia, conferences, and seminars can

be disseminated.

There are a host of other links on the Afrigeneas Homepage, including links to

The Genealogy Home Page, ROOTS-L RESOURCE, the African American Genealogy Group

of Pennsylvania, the USGenWeb Project, the African-Native American Genealogy

Page, underground railroad data, books and pamphlets on African Americans, a

directory of genealogical libraries, and basic search strategies. As with an

increasing number of sites, this site also links the genealogist to searchable

data files, including the National Park Service's United States Colored Troops


One can also find a link to The Afrigeneas News. The Afrigeneas News is an

online newsletter intended to be a center for sharing genealogical tips and

resources from the African American online chats at America Online and from the

Afrigeneas mailing list. Among its many informational items, this online

newsletter contains a question-and-answer section called "From the Archives," a

list of current commemorative events scheduled around the country (such as the

9th Cavalry cemetery dedication in Las Animas, New Mexico), links to genealogy

books, and numerous valuable links from the main Afrigeneas Homepage, such as

black studies on microfilm, Britannica black history, and explanations of

important historical events. Researchers from novice to seasoned genealogist

can find much assistance at this Internet site.

With these works - and the other sources certain to be found as one explores

them -- the genealogists interested in African American family history should

enjoy much success.

Curt Witcher is the department manager for the Historical Genealogy Department

of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana; adjunct professor in

Indiana University's Continuing Education Program; and a genealogical

instructor and lecturer. He is the past president of the Federation of

Genealogical Societies and is currently the national volunteer coordinator for

the Civil War Soldiers Names Index Project. The article above was originally

featured in Ancestry Magazine, Sept/Oct 1997, Vol. 15, No. 5. It is available

online at:



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