Thank you to Muriel Roberts and Barbara Polk Riley for sharing their family histories in honor of National Family History Month. African American lineages can be difficult to trace further than a few generations and thanks to Muriel and Barbara, there are some tricks that may help people when searching for ancestors who were or came from former slaves.
A unique aspect to both of their families was the propensity to refer to people, especially males, by their middle names. As a result, they ran into many roadblocks by searching for their ancestors, thinking that the name relatives called them was their first name when actually it was their middle name. Oftentimes, names can be confirmed by checking vital records (birth, marriage, and death), which is why it is so important to obtain these documents when starting research on any ancestor. They can confirm or reveal important information that can be used to identify other relatives, locations, and time periods with certainty.
Muriel Roberts was able to find a wealth of information through a little known source, the Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narratives, published between 1936-1938. During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt Administration commissioned writers to produce books and documents on a wide variety of topics, one of which was to record interviews of former slaves. Comprising of roughly 3,500 interviews, the Slave Narratives can provide a wealth of first-hand knowledge that can greatly influence one’s research into their African American lineage. While the interviews were only 1-2 pages long, they contain important information such as names, both family and owners, locations, including during and after slavery, and occupations. These narratives can be a major breakthrough and a hidden treasure trove for anyone researching slave ancestry.
It is also important to consider DNA testing when dealing with African American ancestry. In some cases, a person’s ancestors may have been the offspring of a white owner and African slave. This may be revealed through matches in a person’s DNA which can lead to more avenues for one to look, including wills that may confirm the presence of a slave ancestor.
Anyone who can prove ancestry to a slave can join the lineage society of the Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage. As a lineage society, there are stringent requirements regarding what documents are needed to prove direct ancestry, but the society has many resources available to its members that can help further along genealogical research.