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African American Research

If you are an African American who had ancestors living in the United States since before the Civil War, chances are your ancestors were slaves. This can make research extremely difficult, since written records are almost nonexistent. However, if you go into the project with a willingness to work hard and a positive attitude, you can uncover lots of information about your family history.

A good place to start is with your ancestors who were free. Using the same research techniques that other ethnicities use, trace your lineage back into history as far as possible. Don't be discouraged if you hit a brick wall as early as the 1950s. Before the Civil Right movement of the 1960s, African Americans were not always given the same rights as others in the United States, and so their records are not nearly as documented. African Americans before this time also had a harder time receiving education, so many (and this number becomes larger and larger as you research back in time) could not read or write. The most common problem was that, with all the other problems African Americans had to deal with during these years, recording written family histories was not high on the priority list.

Oral family history, however, was. If you are researching your African American ancestors, you will probably have to rely more heavily on family myths and legends than someone, in contract, descending from a slave owner does. Remember that stories get exaggerated and pieces of information are forgotten over time, so look for sources to compare the facts. You can find many good sources online to help you do this. In general, if you find the same story with the same facts in three unrelated pieces, you can (cautiously) trust the facts as truth. Be open-minded to discovering mistakes in these stories in later research.

As you delve farther and farther into history, you will probably need to rely heavily on the records kept by slave owners and ship captains. It is almost impossible to find the exact tribe from which your ancestor was taken, but you may be able to find a region from African where the ship was docked. Follow bills of sale and, if you are very lucky, ship logs and journals to determine when your ancestors gained freedom, bounced from owner to owner, and arrived in America. Don't get discouraged easily. Studying African American family history is a daunting task, but with some dedication to the project, you might surprise yourself with the results.

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