African Americans and the US Census

African Americans have a number of hurdles to face in tracing their ancestry, in light of the historical treatment of slaves in the US.

For those of African American descent, the information flow in the US census documents begins in 1870. The 1870 census was the first during which their ancestors, as emancipated former slaves, began to be listed in the census along with everyone else.

While occasionally an effort would be made for African American children under a certain tender age (which varied from owner to owner) to remain with their mothers, there was no attempt to keep families together or preserve family units. In addition:

  • Slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write;
  • Their marriages were not legally recognized;
  • Individuals could be resold without warning, with the result that the persons sold most likely never saw their families again; and
  • Some were successful in escaping, or using the "Underground Railway" to freedom, either to the northern States or to Canada, and may have left other family members behind.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

On the other hand, some African American families remained at least partially intact, and three or four generations stayed with the same owner.

Some former slaves took on the surname of their last owner when they were emancipated, giving some clues as to where they had been just prior to the end of their enslavement.

Others used the last name they had always had - many of which reflected the surname of each individual's actual father - although it was never recorded or recognized by their owners.

An African American woman who was married and had children by her husband could also have had children by white men with whom her master forced her to sleep - including the master himself. Each of those children, within the African American community, at least, would have had the surname of their father, resulting in more than one surname within a family grouping.

Also, with African American family members so spread out over a wide area of the south, and some who fled to the north or to Canada, those who were close family members could well have ended up with several different surnames. It would have been very difficult to reunite with family members then, let alone now!

While there may be other sources of information for tracing their ancestors and finding descendants of those fragmented families, the census is very helpful for African Americans only from the most recent public census document back to 1870.

Some may be able to go farther back, if they know where their ancestors were located and who owned them, although the information on the census itself is anonymous.

Other records - most of which are not online - relating to the sale of African American slaves from one owner to another, and similar legal documents, such as the assets of an estate, could provide additional information regarding their ancestors' movements in the US.

More recently, DNA testing has become very popular among African Americans searching for their roots. See my pages on Y-Chromosome DNA testing, mtDNA testing, and Autosomal DNA tests (Family Finder and Relative Finder) for further information.

Also, for an outline of how DNA testing was used in the 200-year-old case which posed the question of whether former US President and plantation owner Thomas Jefferson fathered some or all of his slave Sally Hemings' children, see Genetic Genealogy: DNA Testing Applied to Family History.

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