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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Researching the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley


African American Genealogy can be challenging due to a lack of records and visibility in archives that result from slavery and systematic racial exclusion from the dominant narrative; researching the past of African American families can be difficult and at times discouraging, but it is not impossible. Communities of dedicated researchers have found ways to sift through the documents of history to locate African American families within white-dominated archives, and there are increasing numbers and kinds of resources that support this work.  Researchers may want to consult resources like the "Genealogy Page" from Blackpast, resources from PBS History Detectives, or the Library of Congress site on African American Genealogical Research.  Here in New England, the New England Historic Genealogical Society offers resources on African American genealogy.  Another good introduction is  “Getting Started in African American Genealogy” with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Genealogist at Newbury Street Press, a virtual lecture presented by Greenwich Library, February 25, 2021

The Simmons College African American Genealogy Research LibGuide by Ariana Fiorello offers some advice and tips for people conducting research in African American genealogy. The Keys to Success found below are from this guide and can be useful to outline your goals, set expectations, and identify available resources. 

Keys to Success:

  1. Set your goal(s) and expectations:

Identify what you want to learn; either about one particular ancestor or several. Perhaps you are trying to find a possible slave master, no matter what the goal(s), list all expectations. (For example: One of my goals was to identify the family who may have owned my 4th great-grandfather, Sam Cahee).

  1. Find your organizational system:

​Gather all charts and logs that will help you along your research journey. Figure out which method of organization works best for you. You don’t want to lose any valuable information or have to repeat research steps because you forgot to document.

  1. Write what you know:

Starting with yourself, write down everything you know. Write down names, relationships, and dates associated with anyone involved. This will help you when you begin trying to talk to relatives or people who may be affiliated with your ancestor(s). ​

  1. Plan and conduct interviews:

View some practice interviews and think about questions to ask your relatives. Write down your questions, create a list of people to talk to, and gather all materials needed for conducting the interviews (recorder, paper, pen/pencil).  Go out and interview. 

  1. Begin building a timeline/tree:

Based on the information you and the information you collected by talking to other individuals, create a timeline of events and begin building your family tree – if you haven’t already. While creating your timeline, at certain events, mark which records may be useful.

  1. Determine possible “brick walls”:

Brick walls may be things you are missing or places where you feel you may get stuck. (For example: My identifiable brick walls are often prior to 1870-1880). Make notes of where you feel you may have trouble.

  1. Build your personalized research plan:

A research plan is based on the misunderstandings and expectations.

  1. Get in the know:

Familiarize yourself with the history of African Americans in the United States. In addition, get to know the community your ancestors lived in and the types of events that were taking place that may have impacted your ancestor(s).

  1. Identify surname origins:

Try to gain knowledge on whether or not your ancestors changed their names due to trying to rid themselves of the evils of slavery, or if they kept the surnames of their slave masters. This may be tricky, but not impossible. What is your family history lore?

  1. Availability of records and resources:

Determine which records and resources are available and understand the flaws in them. Often, the flaw may be the information cannot be fully believed.


Below is a list of books and resources that offer advice on how to research African American genealogy specifically.