Until Alex Haley's "Roots" miniseries aired on television in 1977, most African Americans held little hope of tracing their heritage past modern times. Since slaves were considered property instead of people, records of the slaves' births, deaths, sales and trades were kept no better than records of livestock. This has always been a tremendous stumbling block for the descendants of those slaves to learning about their ancestors.
Fast-forward to the New Millennium, and to the power of the Internet. Just type "African American genealogy records" into the Google search engine, and you will find enough free and paid genealogy resources to keep you busy for some time.
For example, if you have already traced your ancestors as far back as the 1930s, and if some of them were former slaves, you MAY be able to find out more about them for FREE. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. According to the website, "These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves." You can search this database to see if your relatives' narratives and/or photos have been included.
Another excellent online genealogy resource for African Americans is Civil War Slave Compensation Claims In Compiled Military Service Records of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). After the Civil War, slave owners in border states were allowed to file a claim against the Federal government for loss of the slaves' services if their slaves enlisted or were drafted into the U.S. military. According to the website, "Since each slave compensation claim was based on the service of a specific soldier, a copy of the claim's paperwork was placed in that soldier's compiled military service record. The regiments of U.S. Colored Troops that have a large number of these claims are the regiments formed in the border-states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) or in neighboring states." So if you have reason to believe that one of your ancestors served in the military during the Civil War, you should take a look at this database.
The Internet has many more genealogy websites that you can use to find out about your family's history. Although the Internet doesn't contain ALL the essential records about your family, you should still consider it is a useful tool that can point you in the right direction.
African Americans have played a vital role in U.S. history. If you are an African American and you wish to know more about your family's history, you should try searching for your ancestors' information on the Internet. It can guide you in locating seemingly unobtainable documents.
Online resources mentioned:
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 ( http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html )
Civil War Slave Compensation Claims In Compiled Military Service Records of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) ( http://www.slcl.org/branches/hq/sc/jkh/slaveclaims/index-links.htm )
Julia West is an enthusiastic budding genealogist. Enjoy her free 5-part mini-course for genealogy newbies at http://www.findmyancestorsforfree.com.
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