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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


In the vast majority of cases, genealogical research does not begin at the Rubenstein. When researchers do use RL holdings for genealogical and family history research, it is usually because earlier discoveries led them to learn of the existence of a specific item or set of records that could be useful for their project. Often, the primary objective at this stage is either verifying biographical details or situating known relatives in their historical contexts.

At times, earlier discoveries will point researchers in the direction of the Rubenstein, but not to a specific document. In these cases, figuring out what records to review can be challenging. For instance, perhaps you know that your relative was a Duke Student involved in the Allen Building protest 1969, or that they had worked as a janitor for Trinity College in the 1910s. Or maybe you've identified a large set of family papers of a nineteenth-century plantation owner that may contain information about how an enslaved relative experienced life in bondage. How do you know what records to review?

  • Searching the Catalog and Collection Guides  will help you determine the best strategies for identifying items and sets of records useful for your project at the Rubenstein.
  • Searching the University Records can help if you're looking for relatives associated with Duke University, such as past faculty, students, employees, administrators, donors, or engaged members of the community.
  • Finding Names in Archives & Manuscripts is an introduction to how archives and manuscripts are organized and the types of records you'll find in them. While the names of enslaved and free people of color have historically not been included in collection descriptions, understanding how to navigate a manuscript collection or archive and identify documents that commonly included names of enslaved and free persons of color, such as bills of sale and labor contracts, can help you save time when sifting through large collections.

Finding individuals in archival material can be frustrating and exhausting. It can also lead to constant disappointment. This can be doubly true for researchers trying to find traces of persons who have been subjected to historical and contemporary acts of subjugation and marginalization. As archivist Dorthy Berry explains in her essay on archives and their silencing effects, standard collective description systems and practices tend to perpetuate rather than redress historical erasure of BIPOC in white supremacy-inflected societies such as the United States. While the Rubenstein Library is committed to doing reparative work, fore-fronting marginalized histories is a long process that will not necessarily ease the immediate burdens placed on researchers. 

Searching the Catalog and Collections Guide

Catalogs and Guides

The Rubenstein Library's innovative use of technology and expert description and cataloging provide a variety of ways to discover our holdings. Understanding how the Library catalogs and describes material can help you make the most of our search tools. 

  • The Library Catalog includes an entry for every book, collection of primary sources, and other unique, original, or rare materials held at the Duke University's Rubenstein Library. Catalog entries include only the most basic-level of description: where to find the collection or item, its author(s), a basic summary, a list of related subjects, and a few other details. 
  • The Library's collection guides, or finding aids, describe the acquisition history, processing information, scope and content, and user restrictions of the Rubenstein's collections of primary sources and other unique, original, or rare materials. They may include biographical and historical details, descriptions of arrangement, and a more detailed listings of related subjects, names, and places. However, not all of the Rubenstein's collections are described online. 

Because they include different levels of description, searching the Rubenstein Library's catalog and searching its collection guides may return very different results. Searching collection guides is most useful for discovering materials related to key words, persons, locations, events, and other specific subjects that may not be listed as a primary author, title, or subject of a collection. In other words, it could return more results if a search term appears in a collection's finding aid but not on the collection's catalog listing. However, because not all of the Rubenstein's collections are described online, searching the catalog will still be important for researchers interested in finding items and collections that likely relate to their interests. 

Learn more about how we create description of special collections material.

Searching the Catalog

To search the catalog, enter your basic search term/s in the search bar on the Rubenstein Library's homepage. The search engine is already set to return results from the Rubenstein Library's collections.

Rubenstein Library Catalog Search

The results will be ordered automatically by relevance, with items that include your search term/s in the item or collection title appearing first.

On the results page, use the filter options on the left-hand column to narrow your search. When looking for primary sources related to a specific person, the two most important factors to keep in mind are place and time. Whether you have a firm idea of where a relative was living at a particular time or only a broad sense of their biography, narrowing your search using the "About Places" and "About Time Period" filters can help you find the most relevant material. 

Search Collection Guides

To search collection guides, either choose the radio button labeled "Collection Guides" on the search bar on the Library's homepage or start here.

The results will be ordered automatically by relevance, with collections that include your search term/s in the collection title appearing first. 

When searching collection guides, the results page includes collection titles, where the physical or digital item is located, and abstracts that commonly indicate where your search term appears in each collection's finding aid. On the results page, use the filter options on the left-hand column to narrow your search. Similar to the catalog search, filtering by "Date Range" and "Place" can help you find the most relevant material for your search. 

Searching University Records

Duke University Archives

To run a targeted search across the Library's catalog for a person or set of records in the Duke University Archives, select the radio button for "University Archives Only" before entering your search term/s in the catalog search bar on the Rubenstein Library's homepage

Search University Archives

The following subject heading may help you find additional resources related to Duke faculty, staff, students, alumni, and administrators by searching the Rubenstein Library's collection guides.

Duke University -- Alumni and alumnae 
Duke University -- Employees 
Duke University -- Faculty 
Duke University -- History 
Duke University. University Archives 
Duke University -- Students 
Duke University -- Administration 
Duke University. Office of Human Resources 

Finding Names in Manuscripts & Archives

Finding Names of Enslaved and Free Persons of Color in Private Records

Finding the names of enslaved, formerly enslaved, and free persons of color in archival records is challenging. Even the US National Census Slave Schedules for 1850 and 1860 did not regularly include the names of enslaved persons. 

Census and other public records, especially those kept at the state and county level, are often the places to start in genealogical research. State archives are an excellent sources of information for those seeking general guidance on record types and public access. The North Carolina State Archive, for example, has put together this guide for researchers learning to navigate the records of enslaved people

This tab focuses on how to find the names of enslaved, formerly enslaved, and free persons of color in private records.

What are Private Records?

Private records are those created by individuals, families, businesses, or other organizations for personal use. Some documents that are typically found in family papers, business records, church records, and other sources of private papers---such as official property deeds, land surveys, tax documents, writs of execution, certificates of birth, death, marriage  and cohabitation, will and testament, freedom suits and manumission records, and other documents dealing with private property and vital statistics---are usually recorded by and preserved in county clerk offices as well. Other records---such as correspondence and letterbooks, diaries, daybooks, commonplace books, memorandum books, travel journals, business ledgers, price lists, household inventories, labor contracts, private deeds, household account books, speeches, reports, minutes, notes, miscellaneous writings, and ephemera---might only be found in private record collections. 

Navigating Collections of Private Records

In archive terminology, a collection is any set of archival or manuscript material that either shares a point of origin (e.g. a set of material that comes to a repository from the same donor) or has been grouped together by an archivist (also known as an "artificial collection"). The Rubenstein Library's American slavery documents collection is an example of an artificial collection since the items therein came from multiple points of origin before being grouped together for preservation and research purposes. Collections can be so small that they are made up of only one item, such as a letter, or they can fill hundreds of archival boxes.

When whole collections are made up of a single item like a letter or only a few items like the Plantation blacksmiths' ledger, 1827-1871, then a collection's organization is usually straightforward. When collections consist of hundreds of items that span several boxes, however, it can be helpful to know a few standard organizational practices in order to make the most of a research trip or request for reproduction services.

In multi-folder (and multi-box) collections of mixed-manuscript material, records are commonly arranged either according to the principle of original order (that is, precisely how the papers arrived at a repository) or according to the repository's own preservation guidelines. Regardless of who did the ordering, it is common to see large collections organized into categories, sometimes called "series" and "subseries," and for each series to be arranged chronologically, then alphabetically.

In private records such as family or business papers, common categories include correspondence (sometimes subdivided into personal, family, trade, business, professional, research, etc.); financial papers, including bills and receipts; legal papers; militia or military records; personal files; professional files; bound volumes and other manuscript volumes; and other category headings depending on the scope and content of the collection. If the papers belong to a planter, for instance, there may be a large series in the collection dedicated to accounts, commercial and shipping lists, price lists, and the like. 

When looking for names of enslaved, formerly enslaved, and free persons of color in private records, it's important to think about how the person might have associated with the people and businesses who assembled and preserved papers. It's also important to think of why a person's name might need to be written into a document in the first place. This information is key for researchers faced with the prospect of sifting through multiple boxes.

Did this person live in an urban area or near a country store? Perhaps they shopped regularly at a family or general store. If so, browsing the account books of stores from the same time and roughly the same place can be a useful place to look for names, as Dr. Lisa Bratton discovered in her own family history research. 

Did someone in the family purchase land or receive land as a gift at some unknown time? While official deeds would be recorded by county clerks, private deeds might not have been, and---unfortunately---it is possible that courts have lost records due to natural catastrophe, human error, or malfeasance. Browsing legal and financial papers would be a good place to start looking for privately-held original deeds or copies thereof. 

Don't know where to start? Because of the legal and economic aspects of human bondage, legal and financial papers are a good place to start in general. Naming individuals (as parties or as real property) in deeds, contracts, bills of sale, wills, writs of execution, manumission papers, and the like was standard practice during the revolutionary and antebellum periods. Surveying sets of legal and financial papers that span decades of time could reveal multiple traces of the same individual in the historical record, perhaps illuminating new aspects of the person's or family's life or providing new avenues for further research.