Discrimination against black Americans had consequences far beyond the polling and work places. Forbidden to go to school during
enslavement and facing unequal opportunity (and racism) after the Civil War, most African American families did not have the ability to
write down their personal histories. Instead, they relied on family traditions and oral histories, but many of these were lost when
subsequent generations moved to other places to seek out a better living. Therefore, the knowledge of where one's roots were planted
became faint memories.
And that is the biggest challenge for African American family researchers - where to start? Following are a few pointers to help you in
Probate records hide a great deal of clues as to one's ancestry. Slaves were divvied up after the plantation owner's or farmer's death,
either to family members or creditors. Slaves were mostly mentioned by first name and given a brief physical description, along with an
assessed monetary value. These old wills are painful to read, but are an invaluable tool in the search for ancestors.
Probate records hide in the County Clerk's office, so you'll need to know the county from where your ancestors come. Wills and
executor's documents are considered public domain and can be viewed by anyone for no cost (though there's usually a fee for copying).
After emancipation, many African Americans in the South took the name of their oppressors, simply because they had lost their African
identity. They would also give their children Anglo first names, often on the suggestion of the master or mistress. Hence, a black man
named James Smith would most likely have a white counterpart bearing the same name.
If your great grandparents came from the Oklahoma area, chances are high that your ancestors hailed from the Mississippi Valley. The
Choctaws, who came from the Mississippi Valley, brought slaves with them as they settled into "little Dixie", the southeastern corner of
If your great grandparents came from Texas and thereabouts, you might need to search in Tennessee, Arkansas, or Louisiana for further
Americans of African descent consist of some of the 'oldest' Americans. As the overseas slave trade was outlawed by 1807, no 'new'
slaves could be imported, thus by deduction almost all African American families can trace their ancestry at least to the
post-revolutionary war period.
|Researching African American Ancestry
|A creole-style barn in Louisiana shows the pronounced African influence
in southern architecture.
|A street scene in Melrose, Louisiana, near the Cane River. Most
Louisiana towns along the Red River below Shreveport began life as
plantations, and Melrose is no exception.
|A mural on an Elm Street building in downtown Waco celebrates
the achievements of black cowboys on the Chisholm Trail.
|Sharecropper cabin (possibly a former slave cabin) in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. (Library of Congress)
|Douglass High School in Ardmore, Oklahoma once served African
American students during segregation. It is now a community center.