Overview of African American Research
Contrary to popular belief, many records exist for researching African American genealogy. Some of these records are similar to those of European Americans, but African American sources diverge as American history meanders through prejudice, discrimination, and exclusionism. The 1898 U.S. Supreme Court Case, Plessy v. Ferguson, legalized the doctrine of 'separate but equal.' As segregation flourished, two distinct societies evolved. Parallel organizations and institutions developed and multiplied in both communities. The records of the two populations may compare in type, location, and quantity, but they are catalogued separately. In addition to these records, African American research also yields several kinds of records that are unique.
This chapter examines many of the records available, dealing both with slave and non-slave related records. In cases where the records are the same as European American records, the text will attempt to show researchers how to use these sources to find African Americans most effectively. In other cases, where the records are unique or are similar but have developed separately, the text discusses them in detail. For example, county marriage records exist for both groups, but may be classified as 'White' and 'Colored' and filed separately. Print publications also illustrate the separation. Who's Who in America includes very few African Americans while its counterpart, Who's Who in Colored America is exclusively African American.1
A careful study of African American history provides researchers with a strong foundation for genealogical research. The successful student of African American genealogy will closely examine the history of segregation and the emergence of two different Americas, one white and one black. An understanding of the resulting cultural and societal differences is critical not only to locating records, but also to evaluating their contents. Many of the conditions created by 'separate but equal' are pointed out in the following discussion of sources.
Oral History and Family Records
African American genealogy begins like all other genealogy: with oral history and family records. Researchers should follow the methods, sources, and examples found in chapter 1, 'The Foundations of Family History Research.' An example of one type of record that is unique to the African American community, however, is the funeral program.
Attendees at a traditional funeral receive a prayer card after signing the guest register. This is a 2 x 3 inch folded card normally containing the birth and death dates of the deceased, the date and location of the visitation or funeral, a prayer, and, at times, the name and location of the cemetery.
Attendees at a African American funeral are given a funeral program that contains, in addition to information found on a prayer card, a photograph of the deceased and a full obituary. These programs started as folded sheets of white paper and have evolved into elaborate full-color brochures of various textures, with multiple pages and photographs. It appears that these funeral programs began in the 1930s or '40s, possibly because most African Americans were denied the opportunity to publish obituaries in mainstream newspapers. Funeral programs can be found among family memorabilia, and some genealogists are now donating them to libraries. For more information, see Belzora Cheatham's Funeral Programs/Obituaries of 579 African Americans.2
Research Back to 1870
1870 is a critical date for researchers of African American genealogy. It represents the beginning of an extremely difficult research period: the pre-1870 world of enslaved African Americans. Success in researching in this period actually depends on how thoroughly one has researched records created after 1870. The researcher must use every available post-1870 source to work methodically back in time from the present, to build a strong foundation of evidence before trying to conduct pre-1870 work. Merely using census records, as many novices do, is not enough.