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Strategies for Effective African American Genealogy Research

a woman stands beside a monument

by Dr. Shelley Viola Murphy, Descendant Project Researcher, University of Virginia; featured photo by Emily Faith Morgan

An avid genealogist for over 30 years, Dr. Shelley Viola Murphy, also known as “familytreegirl,” was born and raised in Michigan, and is now living in Central Virginia. She conducts genealogy workshops at local, state, and national conferences. As the Descendant Project Researcher for the University of Virginia, her goal is to locate as many descendants as she can of the enslaved laborers who built the University of Virginia. This involves intense genealogical research on the owners of the enslaved people in Central Virginia and the enslaved laborers from the slavery era between 1800 until freedom. 

Tracing the genealogy of African American ancestors can present unique challenges due to the legacy of slavery and limited access to historical records. However, with the right strategies and resources, it is possible to overcome these obstacles and uncover the rich heritage of African American families. Let’s explore effective strategies that can aid you in combating these challenges and successfully conducting African American genealogy research. African Americans are drawn to genealogy research as a means to reclaim their identity, heal historical trauma, preserve family legacies, connect with extended family, and contribute to a more accurate historical understanding. The rewards of this research extend beyond personal fulfillment, impacting both individual lives and the broader collective memory of African American heritage. 

1. Collaborate with others. One of the most valuable strategies in African American genealogy research is to collaborate with fellow researchers. Joining genealogy groups, online forums, local historical societies, and social media communities can provide a supportive network where knowledge and resources are shared. Engaging in conversations and exchanging ideas can lead to breakthroughs and new research avenues. For example, in the local area, there are three active genealogy groups: the Burke Brown Steppe African American Genealogy Group (BBS); the Central Virginia History Researchers (CVHR)), and the Central Virginia Genealogical Association (CVGA)) Each county, too, in Central Virginia, has a historical society, such as the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society (ACHS).

2. Use Cluster Research. Cluster research involves viewing not only the direct ancestors but also the extended family members, neighbors, and community members. By analyzing the patterns and connections within the clusters, researchers can uncover valuable information that may lead to the identification of ancestral relationships and provide essential context for understanding their lives. Always consider who else was in the neighborhood of a direct ancestor.

a hand rests on a monument

A close up shot of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, some identified by name and others by profession; photo credit: Emily Faith Morgan

3. Explore DNA testing and genetic genealogy. DNA testing has revolutionized genealogy research, particularly for individuals with African ancestry. DNA tests can reveal connections to distant relatives and provide insights into ancestral origins. Participating in DNA projects and online communities dedicated to genetic genealogy can help researchers connect with others who share common genetic links. I suggest individuals begin with an autosomal DNA test from either Ancestry and/or 23andMe. Autosomal tests consider both your maternal and paternal side of your family. If you are looking to search just your father’s male line or just your mother’s female line, you would look to the Family Tree DNA company for Y-DNA and mtDNA.

4. Look beyond traditional records. While traditional records such as census records, vital records (such as birth, death, marriages/divorces, and adoption), and land deeds are important, African American genealogy often requires going beyond these documents. Investigate oral histories passed down through generations, family heirlooms, and personal collections for hidden stories and valuable information. Additionally, exploring local and regional histories can provide a broader context for understanding the lives of ancestors. In addition, if you research the slavery era period, you will also have to research the slave holders.

5. Utilize social history. Understanding the social history surrounding ancestors’ lives is crucial for African American genealogy research. Delve into cultural traditions, employment patterns, migration routes, and social networks that existed during the time period in question. This knowledge can offer valuable clues for locating records and shedding light on the lives of ancestors.

6. Be patient and persistent. Genealogy research requires patience and persistence, and this is especially true for African American genealogy. Accept that progress may come in small discoveries and breakthroughs rather than dramatic revelations. Maintaining a determined mindset and not giving up in the face of challenges is key to success.

a hand rests in a pool

A stream of water runs over the timeline feature of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. Photo credit: Emily Faith Morgan

7. Explore the local area where your ancestors lived. This is a vital aspect of African American genealogy research. Remember to value the resources available at public and university libraries and historical societies. These institutions house a treasure trove of invaluable materials that can greatly assist your research. Within their collections, you may find local history books, newspapers, city directories, and maps that provide insights into the social and cultural context of the community your ancestors were a part of. Historical societies often possess archives with rare documents, photographs, and personal papers that offer glimpses into the lives of African Americans in the area. Additionally, engaging with genealogy groups like BBS and/or CVHR, whether online or in-person, can provide guidance, expertise, and access to specialized resources specifically tailored to African American genealogy research. By taking advantage of these local resources, you can uncover hidden gems and connect with individuals who share your enthusiasm for local history, enhancing your research journey and unearthing invaluable information about your ancestors.

8. Seek professional assistance. If the research becomes particularly challenging, consider seeking assistance from professional genealogists who specialize in African American research. They possess expertise, access to unique resources, and knowledge of specific research methodologies that can help overcome hurdles and advance the research journey. Attending workshops, conferences, and webinars can also enhance skills and provide valuable insights. A collection of webinars I would recommend is “BlackProgen” on Youtube. There are over 100 webinars covering all topics around African American genealogy. The Midwest African American Genealogy Institute (MAAGI) is the only genealogy institute that focuses on African ancestry in the United States. They offer a three-day genealogy institute in July each year.

9. Track timelines. Timelines offer several benefits that can greatly enhance the research process. By logging information in chronological order, timelines provide a visual representation of your ancestors’ lives and the events that shaped them. This organization helps to identify gaps in your knowledge and pinpoint areas that require further investigation. By including what you know and what you are missing on the timeline, you can identify missing records or information, prompting you to delve deeper into specific time periods or locations. This methodical approach can guide your research and highlight potential research avenues. Additionally, timelines can help identify patterns, migrations, and connections between family members or community events that may not be immediately apparent. By visualizing the timeline, you may uncover previously unnoticed relationships or historical contexts that provide valuable insights into your African American ancestors’ lives. Embracing the use of timelines as part of your genealogy research toolkit can bring clarity, structure, and a proactive approach to overcoming common challenges.

10. Share information with others. Last, it is essential to recognize the immense value of people sharing their findings and stories about their African American ancestors. Genealogy research is not just about discovering names and dates; it is about connecting with the rich tapestry of human experiences and preserving the stories of those who came before us. By sharing your findings and engaging in conversations with others who are researching African American genealogy, you contribute to a collective knowledge base that benefits the entire community. Sharing findings can lead to collaboration, where different perspectives and insights come together to unravel complex family histories and break through research’s brick walls. Additionally, sharing stories and personal narratives of your ancestors helps to give them a voice and keep their memory alive. By sharing their triumphs, struggles, and contributions, you contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of African American history and heritage. Ultimately, the act of sharing fosters a sense of connection and solidarity among individuals with similar research interests, and it ensures that the legacy of African American ancestors continues to inspire and educate future generations.

To get involved with local efforts surrounding African American genealogical research, contact the Descendants of Enslaved Communities (DEC) at





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