Friday, September 11, 2015

African American Research Tips

Last Wednesday evening our genealogical society had the honor to host Char McCargo Bah, owner-CEO of Finding Things for U, LLC. Ms. Bah educated those in attendance with her presentation: We Were Always in the Courthouse: What You Can Find in African American Court Records.

Char’s Hints:  You can’t research African American ancestors without tracing the white population. No one is an island; we are all part of a community.

Don’t skip anything when researching genealogy. At some point you’ll come to a brick wall and you’ll need that piece of information you skipped over. If you’re using information that has been passed down, understand that additional records have become available since older genealogies were done.

Cite, cite, cite - If/when you publish, you’ll need  accurate citations - Char makes sure she has three sources to document each fact. Make life easier for yourself, cite as you research. Use cluster research or collateral lines.

Cohabitation records – African Americans that were married before the Civil War could go to the courthouse to have their marriage recorded. This applies to divorce as well, and this may be the first record of the couple’s children. In divorce cases they have to present their marriage license. One stop shopping!  The children are listed. Divorces are found in courthouse records with siblings and neighbors testifying. The only grounds were adultery and desertion. If adultery, there had to be numerous witnesses. The court would have lists of people from whom they took depositions.

Know correct terms; know the county. Not all records are on line. You may have to go to the courthouse.

Dispute of property: Division of Slaves.  You have to understand African Americans were considered property, and when people were taken to court, it was because slaves were property that had to be divided equally.

Keep in mind - Some court cases lasted 30-40 years. Some court cases brought slaves back in to verify the owner and owner’s family to settle land disputes.

Many African Americans went to DC to get married. DC was a popular honeymoon spot because of the availability of hotels that would allow blacks. Unfortunately, DC marriage licenses didn’t ask parents’ names.

Prior to 1865, the free people of color in Virginia were required to register every 2-3 years (Register of Free Blacks). Those lists are in local courthouses. They had to carry their free papers on them. This law was passed 1790, and took effect early 1800s. In Virginia when freed by their owner, an African American had one year to leave. They had to petition to stay and that had to be applied for and approved. Black Code Laws; some of these laws continued after Civil War into the Jim Crow period.

Char’s website can be found at:

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