Researching Your African American Ancestors

The names of enslaved people in the United States were rarely recorded. This can make researching your African American ancestors hard. It is not impossible, because there are many resources available to help you in your search at the BPL and beyond.

Books at the BPL

African American Genealogy: General & Misc.

List created by Jessy Wheeler

Here are some books covering different aspects of researching your African American ancestors. Topics include slavery, interaction with Native Americans, and the Revolutionary War.
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African American Genealogy: Specific Locations

List created by Jessy Wheeler

This list includes books containing guidance for researching African American ancestors from specific locations, as well as books about the history of areas populated by African Americans.
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Government Resources

The Freedmen's Bureau

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly known as "The Freedmen's Bureau," was in operation from 1865 to 1872. Its purpose was to provide assistance to recently freed slaves and their families. The U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau records can help to provide a link between the pre- and post-Civil War records of African American ancestors.

  • Discover Freedmen - Searchable images of Freedmen's Bureau records, by in partnership with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African American Museum.
  • African American Records: Freedmen's Bureau - From NARA, includes information about how the Freedman's Bureau functioned, descriptions of collections within the records, and links to digital images

United States Census Records

Census records are often a useful resource in researching ancestors. While information for slaves was not fully recorded, information for free black Americans was included in the Census prior to the end of the Civil War. The 1870 Census was the first U.S. Census to include the names of all African Americans recorded by the census takers. It serves as an important link between pre- and post-Civil War records.

Online Resources

Research Guides

Record Collections


  • Genealogy - Resources from the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society
  • Resources - From the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society – New England Chapter
  • Our Black Ancestry - A non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources for African American genealogical research, preserving historic materials and properties, and promoting healing of wounds that are the legacy of slavery