How to start your genealogy research into your African American female ancestors. Researching female ancestors is challenging, but possible!
Genealogy research comes with many challenges, especially with regard to researching certain subsets of our ancestors. Once such group is women. Researching our female ancestors can require even more effort when it comes to those who are of African descent. In this post, I’ll offer a few suggestions for documenting the lives of our African American female ancestors.
Like researching any female of days gone by, we often begin with learning everything we can about the men in their lives. Often, women will be mentioned in the records of their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and sometimes even more distant male relatives. Seek information in wills and estate documents, plantation records, diaries, and ledgers, etc. In these documents, you’ll often find supplementary information about a woman who is mentioned, such as her parents’ names, where she was from, and/or perhaps the names of her siblings. Land records can be especially helpful, too, since they often might mention Mr. So-and-so “and wife.”
Marriage records can be particularly useful in helping researchers find maiden names for women, as well as the names of their parents. However, for formerly enslaved females who were in marital relationships prior to the Civil War, “Cohabitation Records” can be particularly enlightening. These records were created by the Freedmen’s Bureau as a way of recording and legitimizing unions that were initiated during slavery. However, since slave marriages were not legal, the couples were seen as simply “cohabitating,” prior to Emancipation; hence their unions needed to be legitimized in some way once they became free. In cases where a maiden name was given for women in these records, it often serves as a helpful hint as to the surname of a previous owner and can be a great starting point for researching that very necessary component of a formerly enslaved ancestor’s life
Another great resource for finding information about formerly enslaved females is family papers of the slaveholding family. Family papers can be found in state and university libraries, historical societies, and even in various online collections. Information related to transactions involving enslaved people, births, deaths, marriages, and more can be found in these documents. In some cases, even letters written by or for enslaved people can be found.
Sticking with the focus on women who were formerly enslaved, the Works Progress Administration Slave Narratives collection, as well as other narrative sources, such as books, pamphlets, and letters written by and about the enslaved, provide a rich source of information. Not only do the narrators (both male and female) share information about their own lives, but they also give details of the lives of their family members and others in their community, giving the researcher a first-person account of details of the lives of those around them. Almost always, the mother of the writer or interviewee is a considerable subject in these narratives – as are grandmothers, sisters, aunts, and a host of other female connections.
It’s important to remember that not all of our African ancestored forbearers were enslaved during the Antebellum years. Records that were created to document the lives of free people of color will also provide helpful information about some women. Registers of Free Persons of Color, required to be kept in many states, will list people by name, color (black or mulatto), and age. These documents also provided explicit physical descriptions of the subjects listed, which can be valuable to descendants who may have never seen photos of their ancestors. Free black women also may have held jobs, such as laundresses, nurses, midwives, etc., so they may sometimes appear in the records of their employers.
In New Orleans, there existed a very unique system called “placage,” in which French or French Creole men took mixed-race women as mistresses in exchange for a sort of dowry type of arrangement with the mothers of the young women. Sometimes, promises of education or of property transfers were made. If the mistress had been enslaved, the agreement could involve freedom for her and family. Either of these transactions is likely to have resulted in the creation of formal documents that would be beneficial to a descendant researcher.
Moving forward in time, records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, can provide researchers with information about some women in the community, who may have requested rations, been involved in outrages, or who may have established labor contracts with their former owners or other employees in the area. Women of color were also hired as teachers and nurses in schools and hospitals established by the Bureau, creating employment records which are also included in these documents.
In the 1890’s, what became known as the “black women’s club movement” began. Incited by efforts to end lynching, these clubs also focused on uplifting the black race and combating racism, as well as on issues of health, sanitation, education, and women’s suffrage. All of these clubs, which, in 1896, united under the umbrella of the National Association of Colored Women, generated records, some of which are surely extant. Additionally, the activities of these organizations were typically chronicled in newspapers, especially in historically black publications, such as The Chicago Defender and even in smaller, more community focused papers, such as the Norfolk (Virginia) Journal and Guide. In addition to reporting on organizational news, these treasured historical newspapers typically had social and community columns, in which news of African American’s everyday movements and events were chronicled. Numerous additional social and civic clubs have since been created for and by black women, all of which have written and published histories, and which have created records and news articles in which our female ancestors can be found.
These excerpts are from the “Lambert’s Point Socials” column in the Norfolk Journal and Guide. Lambert’s Point is a neighborhood in the city of Norfolk, where the author’s mother grew up. Notice how the activities of women in the neighborhood are published.
With the turn of the 20th century came one other type of organization for African American women – that of Greek-lettered sororities, with chapters chartered on college campuses, as well as graduate chapters in cities, everywhere. Beginning with Alpha Kappa Alpha, which made its debut in 1908 on the campus of Howard University, young black women found solace, sisterhood, and a common cause in these organizations, which came to include three other major groups – Delta Sigma Theta (1913), Zeta Phi Beta (1920), and Sigma Gamma Rho (1922). Together, these “black Greek” service organizations have had hundreds of thousands of members and, like the social and civic clubs, have created an abundance of records and newspaper references that hold immeasurable information about African American women.
Another place where women of African descent are easily found is in church records. Since early in this country’s origins, black women have been active in Christian churches, sometimes serving in leadership positions. They have even served as Catholic nuns, since as early as the 19th century.
The range of record types for religious organizations varies, just as do the denominations; however, most will have written church and denominational histories which include the names of and information about women who were prominent and/or instrumental members of the body. Historical church records will typically include member rosters, often with notations of important dates, such as baptisms, christenings, marriages, and deaths/burials. FamilySearch.org is one source for church records. Their holdings include many church and parish registers, which often include precious information about enslaved and free people of color congregants, prior to the emancipation of slaves.
Researching female ancestors of color can be challenging, but the records are there; one just needs to know where to look for them. Though some information is to be found in the records of the men in their lives, African American women have paved a well-documented path in the annals of history, leaving a large body of evidence of their lived experiences for dedicated researchers to discover.
Other Posts of Interest:
- 10+ Resources for African-American Genealogy Research
- Genealogy Tips for Cemetery Research – 6 Photos To Take Before You Leave the Cemetery
- Use Social History in Genealogy Research – Telling Your Ancestors’ Stories
Renate Yarborough Sanders, genealogist, is the descendant of formerly enslaved ancestors, as well as enslavers and free people of color. She is the author of two blogs: “Into the LIGHT”, which focuses on her own family history; and, “Genea-Related”, a platform for presenting a variety of information of genealogical interest. Renate also produces a “(Mostly) African-American Funeral Programs” online database, in which she publishes vital data extracted from funeral programs.
Wikipedia contributors, “Free people of color,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Free_people_of_color&oldid=984973808 (accessed October 26, 2020).
“African American Reformers: The Club Movement.” National Women’s History Museum. Accessed October 22, 2020. https://www.womenshistory.org/resources/general/african-american-reformers.
Wikipedia contributors, “African and African-American women in Christianity,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=African_and_African-American_women_in_Christianity&oldid=981999667 (accessed October 23, 2020).
Dyson, L. (1945, Dec 22). Lambert’s point socials. New Journal and Guide (1916-2003) Retrieved from https://ezproxy.virginiamemory.com/docview/567693395?accountid=44788