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Who Do You Think You Are?: How To Research Your African American Ancestors

March 08, 2011 02:00 PM by Shayla Perry

Season 2 of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? is off to a great start. In last week’s episode, legendary soul singer Lionel Richie traced his roots all the way back to the landowners who owned and fathered his great grandfather! But because it can be difficult to find information on African Americans, Ancestry.com has offered some  tips to help you in your search.

Step 1: Search the known sources. Just as Lionel Richie began with his grandmother’s Social Security application in Season 2 of Who Do You Think You Are?, Ancestry.com suggests that when researching your African American family history, you should start by searching the Social Security Death Index. Here, you can find the date of death and other vital information for people who applied for a Social Security number beginning in the 1930′s.

Then, use things like city directories, U.S. Census records, birth, marriage, and death records to trace your family members. Be sure to also pay close attention to early African American family history resources like U.S. Colored Troops Service Records, pension applications, and records from the Freedman’s Bureau, which provided blacks with post Civil War relief and assistance.

Step 2: Look past the Emancipation Proclamation. To find your African American ancestors, search the 1870 U.S. Census, which was the first to list former slaves by name. If you’re able to find your family members in the 1870 Census, but not the 1860 Census, according to Ancestry.com, this may mean that your ancestor was a slave at the time of emancipation.

You should also look for landowners that lived in the area where your ancestors lived in 1870, especially those with the same last name, since slaves sometimes adopted the last name of their owners once they were freed.

Step 3: Follow the names. Once you are able to find the landowner(s) with the same surname, continue to search through court records, like wills and deeds, to find out more about them.

These records may also include names of slaves or their birth information and other details.

Just like Lionel Richie, what you find may surprise you!

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Photo credit: NBC

Topics: NBC Reality TV Shows, Who Do You Think You Are? |

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