Researching African American ancestors follows essentially the same path as any genealogical research problem. Genealogists must exhaust several resources including family bibles, newspaper clippings, birth, death, and marriage certificates, obituaries, diaries, letters and other family papers. County, state, and federal records—such as the census, birth, death, and marriage records, wills, tax records, and land deeds—should also be used. The SHSMO has an excellent African American collection for historians as well as some very useful resources for genealogists.
The census has been taken every ten years since 1790, but due to right-of-privacy laws, the 1940 Federal Population Census is the most recent one available to the public. The census schedules help determine relationships within a family and the ages and occupations of individual family members, as well as other valuable information. Due to the wealth of information found in the census, it is often the first resource genealogists consult after exhausting home resources.
Genealogists who are descendants of slaves may find their research is more challenging prior to 1870. Since slaves were considered the property of slaveholders, genealogists have to first identify the slaveholder. In the 1800 to 1860 censuses, slaves were enumerated by age and sex under the slaveholder’s name. Materials such as plantation records, wills, and inventories of estates provide means for discovering family documents. The 1870 census was the first to record African Americans by name following passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865.
Prior to the Civil War, marriages between slaves were not legally binding. After slavery ended in 1865, many former slaves became legally married. According to Missouri state law, the names of the children born before the marriage were also recorded.
Wills were the legal documents by which property, including slaves, was transferred from one person to another. Slaves were also manumitted in wills. Inventories of estates were compiled to determine the value of an estate prior to distribution among the heirs and to settle any debts.
Although the SHSMO does not have records of births, deaths, marriages, or probate and circuit court proceedings, it does offer privately published indexes to abstracts and transcriptions of some county records. The Society also has numerous cemetery transcriptions in its collections. Researchers should keep in mind that some cemeteries have an African American burial section.
Many books are available on African American history for the general researcher. Family historians may also access the paid subscription service Ancestry.com for free on computers at the Society’s Columbia Research Center.
The Society’s reference collection contains Janet B. Hewitt’s The Roster of Union Soldiers, 1861-1865, United States Colored Troops. Society holdings also include the Descriptive Recruitment Lists of Volunteers for the United States Colored Troops for the State of Missouri, 1863-1865, on microfilm from the National Archives. These records can be very useful.
The Society’s newspaper collection, dating from 1808 to the present, is the largest repository of state newspapers in the nation. The collection includes newspapers from every Missouri county with 4,500 different titles preserved on 55,000 rolls of microfilm. Most newspapers in the SHSMO collection are not indexed but are still a good resource for information about community news, births, obituaries, marriages, and legal notices. The Society also has a collection of African American newspapers, which includes the following titles:
For specific dates, contact the Society’s Newspaper Library staff or search the Society’s Newspaper Catalog.