Researching your African American roots can be a challenging but rewarding experience. The key to unlocking your African American family history is understanding how to locate and use available genealogy collections. For example, there are few records prior to the Civil War that document enslaved African Americans—but using clues in censuses, wills, and other records of slaveholders can reveal important information about your hidden ancestors.
This article provides a list of genealogy websites that can help you learn more about African American records, where to find them, and how to use them for your family history research.
Ancestry is a paid subscription site that provides online research collections, family tree building tools, and DNA testing services. Their support center provides tips for researching African American ancestors including a free, downloadable research guide!
Ancestry also has a research page that gets you started on researching African American ancestors, provides information on some of their related records collections, relevant historical background, and explains how taking a DNA test could reveal African heritage.
Be sure to check out their African American Collection to learn more about the records available on Ancestry. This may help you decide if purchasing an Ancestry subscription may be worthwhile (and be sure to check out our article for an in-depth review of Ancestry.com.
MyHeritage is another paid subscription site that provides some great online research collections. The MyHeritage Blog provides some tips for conducting African American research. MyHeritage provides lots of information about DNA testing and how it can reveal more information about your roots. For example, check out this recording from their Facebook Live series about “Overcoming Research Challenges in African American Genealogy Using DNA“.
Also check out this YouTube presentation about “How DNA testing can reveal your ethnic roots“.
These videos can help you decide if DNA testing would be beneficial to your research, and if MyHeritage’s DNA offerings are a good fit. See our full review of MyHeritage.
FamilySearch is a free genealogy research website—no subscription needed to access their vast database of records! Users just have to create a free FamilySearch account.
A good place to start is the FamilySearch Wiki page for African American Genealogy. This Wiki is full of information and links to get you started on researching your African American ancestors. There are links to African American Wiki research pages for each U.S. state, links to online articles and databases, and links to additional Wiki pages that discuss African American family history research. For example:
- The Quick Guide to African American Records Wiki is full of helpful research tips. Did you know that some African American ancestors changed their surnames multiple times? This can make research difficult, and unique research strategies may be needed to locate the correct person or family.
- The Researching African American Genealogy Wiki page provides a helpful guide to creating a successful research plan.
- The African American Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company Records Wiki provides background on this invaluable record set. Freedman’s Bureau records are available on FamilySearch, and additional search tools and information about them are listed below.
The FamilySearch Blog also provides some helpful tips on “Tracing Your African American Genealogy“, and talks about some of the records available within FamilySearch that can help you research your African American ancestors.
Be sure to frequent the National Archives’ Ethnic Heritage Links page, which provides a great list of links for research tips, resources, and more. One example is the Civil War Sailors and Soldiers System, maintained by the National Park Service. This database is a must for anyone researching African American ancestors who may have served in the Civil War. The National Archives website also provides tons of rich resources about African American history, including notable pioneers, military records, historical background, and much more!
Freedmen’s Bureau Record Collection
The National Archives is also where you can learn more about the Freedmen’s Bureau record collection, a vital resource for African American research. The Archives page on Freedman’s Bureau records provides a detailed history, a downloadable brochure, and information about the microfilm collections. The Freedman’s Bureau collection is available for free on FamilySearch, but can be a bit difficult to research in. Be sure to check out DiscoverFreedmen.org, a helpful search tool that allows you to input a name, and will then search through the FamilySearch collection for relevant information about your ancestors.
GenealogyBank is another popular subscription website for African American research. This company is known for its extensive collection of newspapers and obituaries. Records that can be critical to revealing information about African American ancestors. You can find out which newspapers GenealogyBank has in each U.S. state that specifically cover African American communities, and learn more about them on the GenealogyBank Blog. GenealogyBank also has many other record collections, including birth and death records. A free 7-day trial might help you decide whether this website would benefit your research. See our GenealogyBank review.
Cyndi’s List of African American genealogy resources, which includes dozens of website links covering topics such as vital records, blogs and podcasts, libraries and museums, surname lists, and much more!
There are thousands of websites out there that can provide information about African American genealogy- and we can’t possibly cover them all! But here are a handful of unique and informative sites to enrich your family history research. Other must-visit websites include:
- Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society holds an annual conference full of lectures that cover African American research topics. There may be an AAHGS chapter in your area, with local family historians ready to help you with your research. For more African American research education, check out the Midwest African American Genealogy Institute, held each year- with virtual classes!
- The Enoch Pratt Free Library provides some tips for getting started with African American genealogy, including a big list of online resources.
- Afrigeneas provides an interactive research guide to African American Genealogy for beginners!
- Freedom on the Move is a unique project- a database of “runaway slave” newspaper advertisements from the pre-Civil War era. Be sure to check it out.
Don’t forget about the plethora of videos and tutorials available on YouTube! A search for “African American Genealogy” provides dozens of videos about research, DNA, brick walls, and much more.
One last tip- be sure to look for resources available at the local and state level, that may not be found on some of the bigger websites. For example, the Illinois State Archives hosts a searchable database of Illinois Servitude and Emancipation records from 1722-1863, which include listings of enslaved or emancipated African Americans from at least 9 southern Illinois counties.
Hopefully this list of online resources will help inspire you, and get you started on a path to discovering your African American heritage!