Department of Family Services – Older Adults

CONTACT INFORMATION: Monday–Friday 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
703-324-7948 TTY 711
12011 Government Center Parkway, Suite 708
Fairfax, VA 22035
Trina Mayhan-Webb

The Quest for Researching African American Ancestors

Article by Bobbi Bowman, African American Genealogy Special Interest Group Member

(Posted 2021 February)

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group photo of six generationsSearching for ancestors is a popular leisure-time pursuit, especially for people who are retired. For African Americans it is a complicated quest. Birth and death records, census and school records do not exist for ancestors who were enslaved. Neither do letters, as they were forbidden to learn to read and write. In fact, it was illegal. Their existence and identities were almost completely obliterated.

Despite the many challenges, here are some strategies to find your ancestors.

Talk to your oldest relatives. Ask the names of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Are there bibles or baby books that contain family names? My sister discovered our family tree in her baby book.

Research family names. Find every family member in every U.S. Census. Begin with 1940—the most recent census available for research. Slaves are not listed by name in the U.S. Census until 1870, the first census after the Civil War.

Find marriages licenses. They provide the names of the bride, groom, and their parents’ names. Marriage licenses after the Civil War brim with the names of parents of those who were enslaved.

Locate death certificates. Look for the name of the informant, the person reporting the death (usually a son, daughter or spouse) and the names of parents. The death certificate of my great, great, great grandmother Nancy, who died in 1922 at 103, is the only record
that names her parents.

The ancestors want you to unmute them. They will show you the way! Bobbi Bowman, a Fairfax County resident, is a retired journalist and graduate student in history at George Mason University.

Bobbi Bowman, a Fairfax County resident, is a retired journalist and graduate student in history at George Mason University.

Learn More
Ancestry Library Edition is freely available through March 31 from anywhere with your Fairfax County Public Library card. Email Laura Wickstead, Virginia Room Librarian, for more information and to learn about the African American Genealogy Special Interest Group.

This article is part of the Golden Gazette monthly newsletter which covers a variety of topics and community news concerning older adults and caregivers in Fairfax County. Are you new to the Golden Gazette? Don’t miss out on future newsletters! Subscribe to get the electronic or free printed version mailed to you. Have a suggestion for a topic? Share it in an email or call 703-324-GOLD (4653).

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