Six resources to help you trace your roots

By Tashi McQueen, AFRO political writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
[email protected]

People have made powerful reconnections by “retracing their roots” over the years, but the process isn’t always straightforward. The information available can run the gamut from dense government documents to barely legible, handwritten notes on the back of a family photo. So where to start ?

This week, AFRO sat down with historians to discover the seven best ways to research your family history.

“The U.S. Census, National Archives, local records, word of mouth, ancestry societies, church records, and cemeteries are good resources,” said David Reed, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and government at Bowie State University. “It takes time, energy and perseverance, but it can be done.”

Here are six resources you can use:

The United States Census Bureau

The US Census Bureau has a genealogy page to help those looking for individual records from 1790 to 1950. The National Archives and Records Administration maintains records for that specific time period. The Decennial Census records have a 72-year secrecy rule to protect respondent privacy, so additional forms may be required to access the information. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “Census records from 1960 through 2020 can only be obtained by the person named in the record or his or her heir after submitting Form BC-600 or BC-600SP.”

US Census data from 1790 to 1950 is held by the US National Archives and Records Administration. (Photo by Windows on Unsplash.com)

You can access the list of questions asked during the census, genealogical maps and an immigrant genealogy program online. Maps can help researchers discover where their ancestors lived. The website mentions online subscription services where documents from 1790 to 1950 are freely accessible in public libraries.

public library

Public libraries are an excellent source for learning about the past. The Enoch Pratt Free Library has a genealogy page where you can access four offices that specialize in different aspects of genealogy. There is the African American department, a Maryland department, the periodicals department, and the social sciences and history department. The African American Department can help the black community in their search through obituaries. Research services are free, but to mail photocopies, requesters must pay. They have various records listed on their website and in person at their main branch.

“We have many resources available although they are limited to Maryland,” said Meghan McCorkell, chief marketing, communications and strategy officer at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. “Some of our resources are available online with your Pratt library cards.”

McCorkell went on to say, “Genealogy is one of our most popular services and our staff enjoy helping people unravel their family mysteries. They are as excited as some of our customers.

Marriage and death certificates

Applicants can access marriage and death certificates through ancestry.com. Some information is readily available and some may need to be requested. Ancestry comes with fees ranging from $21 to $59. The company can help you find details of their burial locations, marriages, full names of former relatives, and photos.

Newspaper Archive

Newspapers are another great way to get information about family members. News provides accurate timestamps and recordings for and about the community. Several local historical newspapers like the Baltimore AFRO American Newspaper are great resources. The Library of Congress has catalogs of newspaper clippings available onsite and online.

Military records

Applicants can find records of veterans to search for relatives through the National Archives. Researchers can request information online, by mail or by fax. Individuals can check the status of an existing request through the National Archives. They have access to the funeral director’s information and pre-WW1 records. People can find photos of military ships, casualties of various conflicts, awards and medals based on each recorded US war.

Parish registers

Churches are a distinct part of the community and therefore hold a wealth of information useful for genealogical research. Talking with local church members or personnel connected to a relative’s hometown can provide a wealth of information. FamilySearch.org can help individuals find historical American church records and other family history-related records online. It allows customers to search church records and can give context about an ancestor, their church type, ethnicity, and national origin.

Help us continue to tell OUR story and join the AFRO family as a member – subscribers are now members! Rejoin here!