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African American Genealogy and Family History

This guide will help you research African American genealogy and family history using primary source materials held at the Rubenstein Library and beyond

About this Guide

This guide is designed to help students and researchers find resources at the Rubenstein Library and beyond related to doing African American genealogy research and family history. Some of the resources contained in this guide include general reference books and beginner's guides; links to libraries, professional organizations and websites specializing in genealogy and family history; and resources that support research at the state and local level. Some stories of researchers successfully using RL collections to uncover their own family histories are at the end of this guide. 

Many researchers have successfully traced their family using documents in our collections, but genealogical research is anything but intuitive, and researching in special collections libraries poses its own set of challenges (e.g., "Does the Rubenstein have documents on my family," one might rightly ask). This guide gives an overview of how the Rubenstein can be helpful in your research, tips and tricks for circumventing challenges particular to finding historically-marginalized and/or enslaved ancestors in the archives, and additional resources to support your search beyond the Rubenstein. 

This guide was created by Orilonise Yarborough and Kelsey Zavelo, Rubenstein Library interns, 2021-2022. For more information on this guide, please contact Kate Collins ( or John Gartrell (

Getting Started in Genealogical Research

Most guidebooks provide the same advice for researchers getting started in tracing their own ancestry: start with yourself and work your way backwards. Begin by writing down everything you know about yourself, such as your birthday, birthplace (county, state), dates and locations of religious rituals or ceremonies undertaken (e.g., baptism), marital status (and date of marriage, divorce, etc.), places lived (county, state), schools attended and dates of attendance, dates of military service, locations and dates of any hospitalizations, dates and locations related to taxable property owned, dates and locations related to court files, and more. The more you write down, the better.

Interviewing yourself may seem like an odd first step, but by mapping your own history, you'll start to get a better sense of the kinds of questions you'll need to ask of and about individuals in your family to find and verify traces of them in the historical record. Sometimes finding people will be as easy as walking down the street and knocking on a relative's door. The further you move backwards in time, however, the more difficult it can be. Knowing what kinds of records may exist documenting a relative's life (e.g., family papers; birth, marriage, and death records; or newspaper columns) could help you pivot your research when you encounter unexpected dead ends. This brings up an important principle in doing genealogical research: the more you know about the specific social and historical contexts in which people lived (locating them as precisely as one can in time and place), the easier it will be to identify potential records for your research. That's why many guidebooks recommend that the novice genealogist also spends time reading in African American history

Once you interview yourself, here is a list of basic steps you might take to carry out your project. For more information and suggestions regarding each step, you may consider picking up one or more of the guidebooks listed on the reference page. Free guides can also be found online. 

  1. Write down everything you know about your immediate family. Use your own history to model the kinds of things you'll want to write down about each person.
  2. Begin organizing your research and plan next steps.
    1. Pedigree charts can help you keep your "big picture" organized, while family group sheets provide the space needed for recording notes. The National Archives offers a variety of family charts to help you keep your research organized. 
    2. Note what information is missing, and begin planning the investigative portion of your research. 
  3. Interview your relatives to fill in gaps you've already identified and (hopefully) chart new branches on your family tree. 
  4. Gather information from your "family archive": this could be any papers that you or any relative already have in their possession, perhaps in a shoebox under a bed or up in an attic. The most mundane bill or business card could prove to be a useful clue to finding out more about your family. At this point, you might not know what is relevant. If it's possible to take pictures of materials or take them home with you, you should consider doing so. Start filling in gaps on pedigree charts and family group sheets. Jot down any additional questions you may have at this point. 
  5. It's at this point that you'll begin locating records in databases, libraries, and archives. You may find that reference books focused on specific record types can be helpful at this stage. 
    1. Get the most out of publicly available, free digital records.
    2. Start preparing your research plan for records you're unable to locate online.
    3. Find papers in special collections units. 
    4. Contact libraries and archives to inquire about their collections, possibilities for digitization, and make plans for travel.