It is easy for a family historian to get lazy these days. One can sit in front of a computer and travel the world, not to mention visit the neighborhood in which your ancestors were born.
Online research can take you a long way and you should absolutely take advantage of all that exists through digitization, which enables you to view, search, and print all sorts of documents. But everything is NOT digitized.
Those of us who have been researching for a long time know that, at some point, you have to get off your butt and go – either to your family “home place” or to a geographically related repository of historical documents. Because so much about African American families was not recorded in public documents, offline resources may be the only way you will ever identify your ancestors and make connections with living relatives.
Here are some offline sources where you can dig deeper:
In the past, the local courthouse was the center of legal activity for the county in which it operated. Many records of genealogical interest will be found in these locations. They are a goldmine of documents that verify births, marriages, land transactions, mortgages, wills, estate records, company and bank records, tax records, civil court records, minutes of town meetings, etc. Bear in mind that many old courthouses (especially in the southern states) suffered fires, with a resulting loss of documents. In recent years, many courthouse records have been transferred to archives.
At the state level, archives are the place to go. They are the cumulative repository of documents from all of the courthouses around the state. You will find many of the same records you would find in a courthouse plus much more. There is generally a library full of books on community and state history, political activity, biographies and special collections (like family papers). When you are uncertain about the specific county in which your ancestor lived, archives are a “one-stop shop” where you can research several different counties all in one place. Additionally, there is a collection of materials on neighboring states as well.
Local libraries used to be the heart of their communities, not only a place to read books but to partake in communal activities. Librarians, especially in small communities, tend to be very knowledgeable about local history. You will find family genealogies, indexes to public records, community history books, newspapers, maps and other materials that never found their way into an archive. Many universities maintain libraries as well.
In visiting any of these repositories, the key records to look for are estate files, family papers, sharecropper accounts and bibles. Enslaved people are frequently named in these documents and nowhere else.
Even if you do not succeed in finding your specific ancestors, you can gain perspective on the times and conditions in which they lived by visiting home communities and institutions that preserve community memory. These include historical societies, historic sites, museums, churches and cemeteries.
Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a website dedicated to African American family research. She is co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012). This blog expresses the views of the author and should not be attributed to the National Genealogical Society.
Editor's Note: This is the second in a sequence of four posts by
on researching African American roots. If you missed the first post, The Last Slaveholder, you will find it here. Sharon
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