Friday, June 19, 2020

Using Directories to Research Your African-American Ancestors

Image by Wynn Pointaux from Pixabay

Today is Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of the last remaining enslaved African-Americans in the Confederacy, in Texas.

In honor of that day, I am posting links to specific kinds of directories and resources for those researching their African-American roots in the United States:

If you are researching African-American ancestors in city directories, keep the following in mind:
  1. Unless your ancestor was a free person and a head of a household, you are unlikely to find him or her in a city directory, especially before or during the American Civil War (1861-1865).
  2. Search for the words Negro or Colored within a directory.  Sometimes an individual was labeled with that term within the directory's general listing.  But, sometimes a whole section of a directory dedicated to Black individuals was segregated to the back of the volume.
  3. Look at the Abbreviations section of a directory, usually at the front of the listings.  You may see that an (N) or a (C) was used to denote someone of African ancestry.  While these labels are racist, they do help to identify and delineate your ancestor with a common name from a Caucasian man with the same name.
  4. Whether or not you find your ancestor, look in the directory section before the lists of individuals for the lists of churches, clubs, cemeteries, schools, and other city features.  You may find specific institutions for the African-Americans in that community.  These can point you to locate other record groups, such as church records or a cemetery office, which may provide information on your ancestor.  They may also point you to other types of directories.  Perhaps there is a historical church directory for that African Episcopal Methodist church your ancestors were members of for generations! Or perhaps there is a historical directory for all the Prince Hall Freemasons in your ancestor's state.
  5. You may need to look for a separate directory for your ancestor.  Colored directories were sometimes published by the African-American community within a city.  Do a Google search for "colored directory" or "negro directory" (with parentheses) and the name of the city and the year range (using ellipses: 1870...1874) you are researching.
  6. Be prepared to find nothing about your ancestor within the lists of individuals, even when you know from other records that he was living in that city at that time.  It was not uncommon for minorities and certain ethnic groups to not be included in directories. Besides people with African ancestry, this included people from Asia, the Irish and Italians and others who didn't fit in the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) mold. Nevertheless, don't give up looking for your ancestors in city directories!

This post originally appeared in our Historical City Directories group on Facebook.  Click here to join.  Be sure to answer the question and agree to the rules.

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