The Freedman's Savings Bank on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Exploring family genealogy is easier than ever, thanks to online records and DNA testing. But for African Americans, family history often hits a brick wall in the years before the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War in 1865. 

“Regular genealogy is a faint trail through the woods, but African-American genealogy is a trail of breadcrumbs,” said genealogist Liz Ross. 

On Monday, Feb. 2, Ross will host a workshop at the Forest Park Public Library offering helpful hints and resources to trace African-American public records before and during the Civil War. 

“More and more records are being digitized and indexed,” Ross said. “There is this interest in finding ancestry back into slavery. Sometimes with DNA, people can even find where in Africa the family originated.”

The library provides access to a special African-American Heritage online resource that can be viewed by patrons with their library card numbers, said Community Engagement Librarian Alicia Hammond.

Ross, of Forest Park, is a genealogical expert and hosts the library’s Second-Saturday Genealogy Club. She’s been using historical records to research families for more than 30 years. 

Ross said some of the public records that have come online recently include account information from the Freedman’s Saving and Trust Company, or Freedman’s Savings Bank, a multistate institution that set up accounts for African Americans after the Civil War. Even if your ancestor didn’t have an account at the Freedman’s bank, it’s worth a look, Ross said. Other family members might be mentioned, or siblings or parents. 

Another good place to look is military records. 

“By the end of the Civil War, 10 percent of Union troops were ‘colored,'” Ross said. It’s possible to find military records and pension records that list family members, birthdates, parents’ names and addresses. Over 250,000 freed African-Americans lived in the South before the war, and would show up on the 1860 U.S. Census as free citizens under their own name. About 200,000 free blacks lived in the North before the war as well, she said. 

“Everyone had a last name by 1870,” Ross said. 

During slave times, things get more complicated. How do you research a family which can be forcibly separated at any time? How do you find couples when marriages are not legally recognized? 

Before 1864, persons being held in slavery might only be listed by their first name, gender, age or work skills. Finding them requires putting the puzzle pieces together before and after the war to trace ancestors back by location, age and description.

Ross said one place to find information was probate records from the antebellum era. 

“Slaves were considered chattel in probates and wills, the same as your wagon or your antique feather bed, so someone might be described by a first name, and an age, ‘so-and-so purchased from so-and-so.'”

Ross also said there exist two U.S. Census “Slave Schedules” from 1860 and 1850. The documents show slave owner names, and the number of slaves owned, listed by age, gender and in some cases if the person was blind or impaired. 

No slave names are given, Ross said, but that’s not a reason to give up hope.

In South Carolina and Tennessee, for example, the number of slaves owned per household was modest, often 5-7 people at the most, which makes it easier to find specific persons. Ross suggests looking at records from a geographic area and browsing. One hint, she said, is to find someone of the right age and see if that person then turns up later in the 1870 census. 

Another challenge for African Americans tracing family history is following their ancestor through the Great Migration, where hundreds of thousands of African Americans trekked north between 1910 and 1970. Suddenly a common name like “John Anderson” is much more difficult to find in a big city census. Ross said one hint is to find out as much information about your ancestors before they moved north. “Look for religion, occupation, a wife’s name, kids’ names, parents, siblings.” Matching data, even of a sibling or other relative may lead you to the right household.  

U.S. Census data is available and searchable online. The library has a subscription to Ancestry.com, which has U.S. Census data through the 1940 census, searchable by name. Every census is there, except the 1890 U.S. Census, which was destroyed in a fire. Ancestry also has draft cards, college and high school yearbooks, birth and death indexes, immigration and naturalization lists and state censuses. Find-A-Grave.com has online cemetery information.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Ross, “That’s the focus of this talk, the challenges you’ll encounter, the resources you might encounter. There’s no magic button for anybody doing genealogy.”

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...