By Tashi McQueen
People have made powerful reconnections by “tracing 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 notes, handwritten on the back of a family photo. So, where to start?
This week, the AFRO spoke with historians to find out the top seven ways to research your family history.
“The U.S. Census, the National Archives, local archival facilities, word of mouth, ancestry companies, church records and cemeteries are some good resources,” said David Reed, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and government at Bowie State University. “It takes time, energy and persistence but it can be done.”
Here are six resources you can use:
The U.S. Census Bureau
The U.S. Census Bureau has a genealogy page to help those seeking individual records from 1790 – 1950. The National Archives and Records Administration maintains the records for that specific time period. Decennial census records have a 72-year confidentiality rule to protect respondents’ privacy, so extra forms may be needed to access the information. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “records from the 1960 to 2020 censuses can only be obtained by the person named in the record or their heir after submitting form BC-600 or BC-600SP.”
You can access the list of questions asked in the census, genealogy maps, and an immigrant genealogy program online. The maps can help the researchers discover where their ancestors lived. The website mentions online subscription services where the 1790–1950 records are available to access through public libraries for free.
Public libraries are an excellent source for discovering the past. TheEnoch Pratt Free Library has a genealogy page where you can access the four offices that specialize in different aspects of genealogy. There is the African American Department, a Maryland Department, the Periodicals Department, and the Social Science and History Department. The African American Department can assist the Black community in their search through obituaries. Research services are free, but to mail photocopies, requesters do have to pay. They have various records listed on their website and in person at their main branch.
“We have many resources available though they are restricted to Maryland,” said Meghan McCorkell, chief of marketing, communications and strategy at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. “Some of our resources are available online with your Pratt library cards.”
McCorkell continued, stating that “genealogy is one of our most popular services and our staff love helping people unravel their family mysteries. They get as excited as some of our customers do.”
Marriage and death certificates
Seekers 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 find details about their burial locations, marriage, full names of past relatives and photos.
Another great way to get information on family members is through newspapers. The news provides accurate timestamps and records for and about the community. Several local historical newspapers like the Baltimore AFRO American Newspaper are great resources. The Library of Congress has catalogs containing newspaper clippings available on-site and online.
Seekers can find veterans’ records 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 home director’s information and pre-world war one records. Persons can find pictures of military vessels, casualties from various conflicts, awards and medals based on each recorded American war.
Churches are a distinct part of the community and thus hold a host of information beneficial to a genealogy search. Speaking with local church members or staff connected to a relatives home town may provide a host of information. FamilySearch.org can help individuals find records online of all U.S. churches throughout history and other documents related to family history. It allows patrons to search church records and can give context about an ancestor, their church type, ethnicity and national origin.