Getting Started With African American Research

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The desire to navigate one’s identity and heritage can be easily overwhelmed by an onslaught of information and resources. Tackling your family history does not have to be complicated if you follow the right steps. This handout is designed to help you follow a step-by-step process on how to effectively get started. To have a hard copy of this information, head here

Step 1: Write Down What You Know[edit | edit source]

Contrary to modern instinct, capturing your family history doesn’t begin online—it begins with you! Before you head online, write down everything you know about your family. Print out a pedigree chart or fill out a My Family booklet to help keep track of everyone. Doing so will help you to easily spot any holes or gaps in information.

Step 2: Find Artifacts Around the Home[edit | edit source]

Look for any possible information about your family and ancestors in records you may have in your home or in a relative’s home. The more information you gather, the easier it will be to locate and recognize individuals in other records. Records to look for include: obituaries, funeral programs, death records, birth records, journals, diaries, family Bibles, family letters, and photographs. Though not always easy to access, visiting cemeteries and/or headstones of relatives can help you collect useful information as well. Label and organize the documents and photos you have discovered and thoroughly review them for additional information and facts.

Step 3: Interview Relatives[edit | edit source]

After you have exhausted your own personal knowledge, it’s time to reach out to your parents, siblings, and extended relatives to document the people and facts that you’ve yet to uncover. Ask them for your help in filling in the blanks of your pedigree chart or My Family booklet.

Beyond asking for basic information, conducting interviews with your relatives will help you in compiling an oral history. Oral histories add an invaluable layer with stories, personalities, and details that bring your ancestors to life. The FamilySearch Family Tree and FamilySearch Memories app can help you to record those interviews.

For tips on how to successfully conduct an interview, head to the FamilySearch Wiki page: Creating Oral Histories

Step 4: Create a FamilySearch Account[edit | edit source]

Once you’ve laid the proper foundation, now is the time to get online and input the information you’ve collected. Head to and sign-up for a free account. You will need an email address or an SMS phone number in order to create one.

Creating a FamilySearch account will allow you to preserve your family’s information forever. On FamilySearch, you can collaborate with others who have common ancestors. With your permission, others can also access your information to provide you with additional help if needed.

Sign up for free account here

Step 5: Create Your Own Family Tree[edit | edit source]

As you complete the steps to sign up for a FamilySearch account, FamilySearch will direct you to begin inputting the information you’ve collected on your own and with other family members. Begin adding the names, dates, and locations as instructed.


Once you’ve created an account, log-in, click on the Family Tree tab, and begin adding names to your family tree. Input the names, dates, and locations you’ve collected.

You do not need all of an ancestor’s information to add them to the tree. Simply input as much as you can, and then come back later to add more or correct the information. You can always edit and update an ancestor’s profile at any time.

For more information on adding names to the tree, head here

Step 6: Search for Existing Ancestors[edit | edit source]

Look to see if your ancestors are already in the tree by accessing FamilySearch Family Tree. With a database of more than 1.2 billion ancestors, the FamilySearch Shared Tree is a cooperative, public tree, where FamilySearch users can see how they connect to each other. Instead of concentrating efforts on privately constructing individual trees, FamilySearch users work together to build a single, shared tree that helps everyone discover more about their respective ancestors and other family members.

In many instances, people are already working on your tree, unbeknownst to you. Search FamilySearch Shared Tree to see if ancestors have already been captured on the tree, saving you a lot of time and sparing you from unnecessary work.

For instructions on how to search the shared family tree and connect it to your profile, head here

Step 7: Look for Blanks[edit | edit source]

Look for empty spots in your family tree by examining it in various formats. Formats such as the fan chart can help you to more clearly see where you’re missing family information, giving you a starting point in where to continue searching. Once you’ve identified blanks, search for additional information on existing ancestors or begin searching records as defined in the next step.

To discover the various ways of looking at your family tree, head here

Step 8: Search for Historical Records[edit | edit source]

There are a host of records available to search on a federal and state level. While we are unable to review every kind of record in this guide, here are the following record types that will best help you as you get started:

Census Records[edit | edit source]

Census records are a great place to start your research. They can quickly tell you where a family is residing, which is vital information for effectively locating them in other records. United States Census records began in 1790 and were taken (and still are) every ten years. The most recent census available is the 1940 Census. The first census which lists all African Americans by name is the 1870 census. Free African Americans were enumerated on earlier censuses.

Census records are helpful in estimating dates and events, such as: death, marriage, birth, and migration. Locate your ancestor in every possible census. Locate all their siblings and parents. This is especially helpful if your ancestor disappears from the censuses. They may be living with other family members.

To begin searching the census records, head here

Vital Records[edit | edit source]

Vital records include birth registers and certificates, marriage licenses and certificates, and death registers and certificates. As indicated by their name, these kinds of documents give vital information in understanding an ancestor’s life as they can link us to other generations and provide information between the censuses. They may be more difficult to locate, but often….

Search the collection here

Military Records[edit | edit source]

U.S. Colored Troops[edit | edit source]

The United States Army began to organize African Americans into regimental units known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in 1863. The enlistment of free blacks and slaves was considered a key to winning the war. Approximately 186,000 African Americans served in the USCT volunteer units during the Civil War.

Search the collection here

While the records mentioned previously are considered critical in helping you find ancestors, there are many more collections available. For more information, head to the FamilySearch Wiki page dedicated to African American genealogy: FINISH

World War I Draft Registration Cards[edit | edit source]

All males born between September 13, 1873 and September 12, 1900 were required to register for the World War I Draft. There were three different registrations for different ages asking different information. Registration does not mean the individual served in the military. Information may include birth date and place of registrant and next of kin (fix this). The value of these records is the fact that they were filled out by the registrant. (and sometimes may be the only information they completed themselves)

Search the collection here

World War II Draft Registration Cards[edit | edit source]

Nicknamed the “old man’s draft”, this registration was taken in April 1942 for men born between April 27, 1877 and February 16, 1897. These cards can be found on historical records.

Search the collection here

For additional military records, search our complete collection here

Unique African American Records, post 1865[edit | edit source]

Freedman’s Bank Records[edit | edit source]

The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company (often called the Freedman's Bank) was created to assist newly freed slaves and African American soldiers at the end of the Civil War. The bank failed in 1874 and many depositors lost their savings, but the records of the bank remain. Among the records are the registers of signatures of depositors. The registers from 29 branches from 1864 to 1871 show the names, residence, and description of each depositor. They may also include the genealogy and relatives of the depositor.

The registers of signatures of depositors have several indexes which are easy to use, and include about 480,000 personal names (61,131 depositors and their relatives). They cover a time period when many African Americans were newly freed and may be a source that bridges between their lives in slavery and freedom. The records sometimes show a variety of family history information such as birth date, birthplace, where raised, former owner, employer, occupation, residence, and relatives.

Search the collection here

Freedmen’s Bureau Records[edit | edit source]

The official government title of this record set is The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. The Bureau was created during reconstruction to help with relief efforts for freed slaves and poor whites. It was active 1865-1872 and contains a wide variety of data about the African American experience during slavery and transitioning to freedom. The collection contains 1.5 million digital images covering categories such as labor contracts, education records, court and marriage records. Similar to the Freedman’s Bank records, the Freedmen’s Bureau Records can provide the critical link in finding ancestors who were once enslaved, thus breaking the infamous 1870 “wall” that many people .

Search for names within FamilySearch’s collection of Freedmen’s Bureau records here

For an in-depth webinar reviewing the importance of the Freedmen’s Bureau records, as well as a tutorial to search the records, head here

Step 9: Add Photos and Stories[edit | edit source]

Breathe life and personality into your genealogy by uploading photos and adding stories in the Memories section of FamilySearch. Adding to the Memories section is a perfect way to preserve artifacts, photos, stories, and oral interviews forever in a location where all of your family members can access it for free.

Begin adding your memories here

Step 10: Work Together As A Family[edit | edit source]

Throughout your entire journey, lean on the support of your family. Enlist your immediate and extended family in searching for names, collecting artifacts, and adding people to the family tree. Doing so will bring you joy and strengthen your family ties.