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tracing African ancestry

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A decade ago, tracing one’s ancestry was an activity associated with bored and perhaps elderly individuals who had nothing but time and tons of photo albums on their hands. In recent years, it’s seemed that everyone started talking about ancestry firms like 23andMe and People started giving out 23andMe tests as holiday gifts. Every standup comedian has a joke about what their 23andMe results found. There are many reasons we hypothesize that people are exhibiting increased interest in determining where they came from. Maybe all of the loss associated with the pandemic has driven people to want to connect to more family – to achieve a feeling of closeness when we all feel so distant.

No matter the reason they’re doing it, one thing is for sure: people are tracing their ancestry by the millions. Literally. CNBC reported in 2019 that 26 million people had shared their DNA with ancestry firms. People want to know where they came from. There’s just one problem: genetics has been a historically white business. In fact, Technology Review did a report on the fact that many such companies only work on those of European descent. Furthermore, says that, due to so many Black families being separated during slavery, tracing one’s lineage becomes even more complicated for Black individuals. That’s a major problem – but a problem that several companies aim to solve. Below are ancestry firms that can help the Black community trace their African ancestry.



The Freedmen’s Bureau Project


When emancipation resulted in the freedom of nearly 4 million slaves, the Freedman’s Bureau became a resource for those individuals transitioning into freedom.  The organization also recorded Black Americans’ names for the very first time. Those records are what make up the basis of The Freedman’s Bureau Project, which works to connect Black Americans with their Civil War-era ancestors. Their database contains over 5 billion searchable names and allows you to build out a family tree using photographs and records you collect from the relatives you know and what already exists in the database. Then, you can share the results with other family members to make even more connections.


Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society


The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society is a non-profit aimed at preserving African American history and helping Americans of African descent learn how to carry out the genealogical process. It offers an online interactive guide for beginners and several useful resources to start your search. It also provides charts for you to record what you find such as ancestral charts to create a family tree and research extract forms for you to record the details of historical documents. The society has local chapters around the country so you can become a member and connect with other people in the Black community tracing their ancestry and exchange resources.


The Digital Library on American Slavery


For countless reasons, millions of Black Americans went missing before and during the Civil War, their names never making it onto official records to help with ancestry tracing. The Digital Library on American Slavery exists to help individuals find their family members who could have slipped through the cracks and aren’t searchable through more conventional methods. It contains documents such as slave deeds, slave-trade voyage records and runaway slave advertisements to help one piece together the mystery of missing ancestors. Users can filter their search by document type, name, location, and keyword.

Play is a comprehensive database containing records about people, places and events involved in the slave trade and pre-Civil War era. It not only helps users trace their enslaved ancestors but also the African ancestors of those individuals with documents dating back to the fifteenth century. The database has been contributed to by scholars, educators and historians and now offers information about over 600,000 individuals and 5 million data points. Their search tools are impressively immersive. You can search for a person by not only the usual descriptors such as gender and age but also by role types such as “captured person,” “sold person” or “missing person” as well as ethnodescriptors and occupation.


International African American Museum Center for Family History

The International African American Museum Center for Family History is a rich resource of diverse documents and records to help you trace your lineage. You can search through obituaries, marriage records, bible records, pension files and more, as well as an extensive library of photos. Meant to be a collaborative program, the site also lets users upload their own photographs to contribute to the growing library of resources that might help others find their family members. The Found on FamilySearch tab offers more helpful documents like voter registrations, census forms, birth indexes and death certificates where you can view thousands of handwritten names.


Access Genealogy


Access Genealogy is not specifically for those tracing their African ancestry, but it has a section of the site dedicated to just that. It allows you to search census records by state, African American cemetery records by state, slave owners by state and African American genealogy records by state. It also provides a list of books about African American history detailing events that could provide further insight into one’s ancestry trace.

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