Tracing Your Ancestors – African American Genealogy Research


There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the unique challenges posed by researching your family’s history if you are of African-American descent. The key to success lies in being open-minded and flexible and being willing to try new approaches. In 1977 with the release of Roots, a television mini-series based on Alex Haley’s book of the same name saw the first increase in African-American curiosity for ancestry. The series told the story of Kunta Kinte, a free African man who was captured by slave traders and sold into slavery in Virginia. As many people, both black and white, watched the series, they began to wonder if they could trace their own families back through the generations and across the Atlantic Ocean.

DNA Testing Your Ancestors

However, Haley’s genealogical research has been shown to be unreliable, with much of his analysis proven to be faulty. Most experts believe that despite the inaccuracies in his research, he was still able to find his family’s ancestral home due to certain words that were passed down orally through family tradition: Kamby Bolongo (the Gambia River) and Ko (Kora, a stringed musical instrument). Could there be other techniques and ideas that could help us bridge the gap across the ocean? Of course! In addition to DNA providing answers, other factors such as migration patterns and research can also give clues. 

  • The most common type of test is an autosomal test. This looks at a person’s entire genome, across all ancestors. It can connect you with cousins and give you an idea of where in the world your ancestors came from. All of the main testing companies offer this kind of test.
  • A Y-chromosome test (Y-test) can only be taken by males, as only men have a Y chromosome. This test traces back through the paternal line (father’s father’s father, etc.). 
  • A mitochondrial test (mt-test) does the same thing as a Y-test but traces back through the maternal line (mother’s mother’s mother, etc.). Both men and women can take this kind of test. 

Migrational Patterns and Tracing Your Ancestors

Migration is a complex and often misunderstood phenomenon. Our objective as researchers is to identify and understand why people move from place to place. If we can discover these reasons, we can begin to see patterns emerge. Once these patterns are identified, we can trace them back to their origins and better understand where individuals come from.

African Americans (or their ancestors) have experienced six significant migrations throughout history. Perhaps most infamously, they were brought against their will from Africa to America during what is commonly referred to as the “Middle Passage.” While this was undoubtedly a tragic event, it is only one part of a much larger story.

Many African Americans were forced to relocate after the Civil War. They often moved to southern cities like St. Louis, Memphis, Baltimore, or Cincinnati. This was often done in an attempt to reunite with lost relatives or to start fresh in a new place. Unfortunately, this often resulted in further separation of families as they were auctioned off on slave blocks. This migrational pattern is referred to as “The Second Middle Passage” 

Between 1916 and 1930, many African Americans migrated from southern states to northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York in search of better opportunities. This migration, known as the “Great Migration,” was voluntary and driven by both push and pull factors. Jim Crow laws and limited opportunities in southern states served as a push for many African Americans, while jobs in northern industrial cities served as a pull. This migration had a significant impact on both southern and northern states, as African Americans brought their culture and traditions with them to their new homes.

In 1940, a new era of African American migration began. This “Second Great Migration” saw families leave in search of better jobs and opportunities elsewhere. Many headed to cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. This period marked a significant change in demographics for these areas, as well as a new chapter in African American history.

The “New Great Migration” of African Americans began in 1970, as jobs in industrial cities started to disappear. Many moved south, to cities like Atlanta, Jacksonville, Dallas, or Houston. In most cases, this did not mean a return to rural areas like Mississippi, Arkansas, or Alabama.

These migration patterns make African American ancestry research quite complex. However, The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Database provides statistics that can help determine the African place of origin for ancestors who lived in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, or South Carolina in 1880. To use the database, you must first find your ancestors in the census records from 1880. Once you have found them, you can then look up their parents’ places of origin in the database. This information can give you a general idea of where your ancestors came from in Africa.

For example, many enslaved people who were brought to Virginia or Maryland were likely from the Senegambia region (modern-day Senegal or Gambia), the Bight of Biafra (modern Nigeria), or West Central Africa (modern Congo or Angola). A variety of factors determined where people were captured and where they were subsequently enslaved. These factors include which European country controlled which area in Africa, but also the particular skills the Africans in a particular region might have been valued for.

The Census Loss of 1880-1900

The loss of the 1890 US Census created a number of difficulties and challenges, especially for African American researchers. This is because most black families were in a state of flux during the years between 1880 and 1900. They were searching for lost relatives, determining their surnames, moving around to find better opportunities, and all this in a region of the country that was still recovering from the Civil War.

It may be helpful to study the entire community from 1900. By looking at which of their neighbors were born in the same state, you may be able to find patterns of chain migration. People at the time rarely moved as single individuals.  By studying an entire community, you can get a better idea of where a group of people came from.

Genealogical research can be a great way to learn about your family history and connect with your ancestors. However, many people overlook the valuable resources that local genealogical societies can provide. These societies often publish quarterly magazines or journals, which can be full of useful information for your research. For example, many societies publish probate indexes or transcriptions of wills and court records in their journals – rather than online or in books. Another type of journal article you might find features individuals writing about how they solved a particular problem in their research. While the specific case may not apply to your research, the methods used could be helpful for solving one of your own research problems.
If you are learning about your ancestry and feel stuck in your research, you might be able to connect with a relative through GEDmatch. To learn more about how GEDmatch can help you trace your ancestors, click here to get started!

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