Around the world, there are millions of people who can claim African heritage. Many people today are interested in tracing their roots all the way back to their African ancestors, which can pose some difficulty not encountered by other races. This is due in large part by the fact that many Africans came to the UK and America’s as slaves. While it may be a little more difficult, it is not impossible.

English: The Hunted Slaves

The Hunted Slaves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Getting Started

In the beginning, researching family history with African genealogy is not much different than any other search. Whether you are attempting to go back to the 1800’s or find your great-great-great grandparents the process is the same. Tips for getting started:

  • Record as much recent information as possible- parents, grandparents etc…
  • Fill in dates- birth, deaths, marriages, divorce (anything important life dates)
  • Fill in locations for the above dates wherever possible

Your first source of information will of course be your personal store of information, once you have exhausted what you know it is time to turn to your family.  Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are all good sources of information. You may want to make separate lists for each individual you interview, that way you can cross-reference and look for discrepancies.


The next phase of your research is confirming what you have learned from oral tradition and that is done through physical objects such as birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, rental agreements, mortgages and much more. Confirmation of dates and names can often be found in local cemeteries.

As you go through this process, you may find you have to prune the family tree a bit. Oral tradition may be full of “aunts”, “uncles” and “cousins” who are not actually related to you. It is also important to note that uncle Jim may actually have been born Randolph James.

Slave Records

Much of the above is a matter of rinse lather repeat until you go back far enough to encounter slave records in your family history. Again, it is not impossible but you will need to approach the search a bit differently. Researching African Genealogy for this time period will be challenging because many slaves did not have recognized surnames during slavery. Some possibilities for surnames include:

  • Owners surname
  • Mothers surname
  • Surname of father (might be another slave or owner)
  • Assigned surname- this happened often after emancipation, names were issued by church or state
  • Chosen- freed men and women were allowed to simply choose a surname for themselves

It will be best to work backwards through property records of freed slaves, then attempt to find owner information and so on. How far back you can go will depend a great deal, on how well records were kept for a specific area.


It is important to note that not all UK citizens of African heritage are descendants of slaves and tracing roots across continents can be difficult for any genealogist. If you find you are running into significant issues there are professionals who can assist you and many resources online such as Find A Grave dot com and others.

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Filed under: Starting Your Family History

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