Common Problems

There should be no confusion: the African American genealogist faces a number of challenges that other ethic groups do not. This is a direct result of slavery. We know that slavery destroyed the African family in such a way that 140 years later, over 1.4 million of us are looking online for answers.

We've already addressed some of the common problems in other sections of this web site. It is important to understand why these problems exist even after the end of the Civil War (which by the way was not about states rights or preserving the Union--it was about the freedom of slaves). The 4 main reasons are:

1. Slavery - Prior to the 1870 census, slaves were considered property and therefore names places of birth, parents, etc. were not recorded in official records, particularly census records. Rather than names owners used numbers to describe their slaves.

2. Slave Marriages - Slave owners in the south allowed their slaves to be married whereas slave owners in the north generally did not. In all cases, these marriages were never officially recognized or recorded in any official documents because slaves were considered property. With the establishment of the Freedman's Bureau during Reconstruction, former slaves were finally able to have their marriages recorded.

3. Name Changes - In addition to the recordation of marriages, former slaves were free to choose any name they wanted to begin their new life as free people. The former slave could keep the name given to him by his master, or give himself any name of his choosing and in some cases; former slaves took the names of soldiers who had been killed during the Civil War.

4. Illiteracy - Slaves were not the only illiterate people the United States but they were by far the largest group of people who were. In the southern states laws forbade them from learning to read or write because Whites were fearful of uprising. When former slaves were first counted in the 1870 Census, few could spell their own names. The census takers were free to write whatever spelling they chose based on what they thought they heard or how they thought it was spelled. Researcher in African-American research must be prepared for significant variations in name spellings and changes.

These can be significant challenges for any genealogy researcher to overcome but a clear understanding of the era, social conditions, patterns of migration and patterns of customs and traditions will help get you through many of these difficulties.