The Archive Lady: Researching African American Ancestors in Local Archives

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Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, explains how to research African American ancestors in archival records with these tips and tricks!

Julian from Illinois asks: “I am researching my African American ancestors. What types of records should I be looking for in local archives?”

Julian asks a great question and one that I try help with on a daily basis. I work at a small county archives in Tennessee and African American family history is something I try to help genealogists with when they visit my archives. First and foremost, I have to say that what can be found depends upon on what has been saved and preserved in those local archives. While this is true for any records, African American records can be scarce in some archives. So, to answer this question, I am going to suggest three sets of records that I have used to research African Americans as a professional genealogist helping my clients.

Newspapers

One of the first record sources I encourage researchers of African American family history to look for is local newspapers. These records can be a tremendous help to researching any ancestor, but more so African American ancestors. Many local county archives have their local newspapers available on microfilm. This might require you to visit the archives or if you know the date of a life event for your ancestor, you could request a look-up via email or telephone. But before you travel, check online newspaper resources such as Chronicling America at the Library of Congress. So, what can be found in local newspapers to help you with your African American research?

  • Obituaries
  • Birth and Marriage Announcements
  • Community Gossip Columns

When researching in newspapers, keep in mind that some newspapers segregated their news which means they would have placed African American news items all on the same page or in their own section of the newspaper. This could actually be a huge help to you as you are researching local newspapers.

When researching in newspapers, keep in mind that some newspapers segregated their news which means they would have placed African American news items all on the same page or in their own section of the newspaper. This could actually be a huge help to you as you are researching local newspapers.
The Columbia Herald, Columbia, Tennessee, September 15, 1905, Page 3, Column 3

School Records

School records are some of my favorite records to find in local archives. If you are fortunate, the records from the local African American schools were saved and preserved. Before school integration took place, most areas had white schools and what were called “colored” schools. These were separate schools serving non-white students. Some of the types of school records that I have seen at local archives for the African American schools are:

  • School registers that list student names, ages, dates of birth, grades, father’s name.
  • Board of Education Meeting Minutes have great information about establishing the local colored schools, hiring of teachers and the upkeep of these schools.
  • School photographs, which could be individual student photos or class group photos and photos of the actual school building

School records can be a wonderful resource for researching your African American ancestors, even if your ancestor didn’t go to school. Many of our ancestors that did not attend school could have been mentioned in the Board of Education Meeting Minutes. Maybe your ancestor provided wood for the one-room school stove and was paid their work or maybe they drove a school bus.

School records can be a wonderful resource for researching your African American ancestors, even if your ancestor didn’t go to school. Many of our ancestors that did not attend school could have been mentioned in the Board of Education Meeting Minutes. Maybe your ancestor provided wood for the one-room school stove and was paid their work or maybe they drove a school bus.
African American School, Wikimedia Commons

Local Civic or Social Organizations

African Americans have often participated in local civic and social organizations, although in a segregated format. Many times, in a local area, there will be a particular organization that would have a white group and a “colored” group within the same organization. As with any similar organization, African American groups kept records such as membership rolls, scrapbooks and other records about their events and meetings. Look for these records when trying to research your African American ancestors.

African Americans have often participated in local civic and social organizations, although in a segregated format. Many times, in a local area, there will be a particular organization that would have a white group and a “colored” group within the same organization. As with any similar organization, African American groups kept records such as membership rolls, scrapbooks and other records about their events and meetings. Look for these records when trying to research your African American ancestors.
Negro 4H Club Mirror Publication, ca. 1939, North Carolina State University

Researching your African American ancestors in local archives can be a challenge, but not impossible. The record sources I have highlighted are just the tip of the iceberg of records that could be available. I would also encourage African American genealogists to share their genealogy research with local archives. Ask the archive to place a copy of your ancestor’s history in their vertical files so that when other researchers ask about African American ancestors, the archives will be able to share your research with them.

Legacy Family Tree Webinars and Quick Guides by Melissa Barker

Researching Your Ancestor’s School Records http://legacy.familytreewebinars.com/?aid=3076

Researching Your Ancestor’s School Records
http://legacy.familytreewebinars.com/?aid=3076

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If you have a question about researching in archives or records preservation for The Archive Lady, send an email with your question to: melissabarker20@hotmail.com

Melissa Barker - The Archive Lady

Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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