Southern History Book of the Month: Researching African American Genealogy in Alabama: A Resource Guide

by Mary Anne Ellis, Southern History Department, Central Library

Researching African American Genealogy in Alabama: A Resource Guide
Frazine K. Taylor
Foreword by Dr. James M. Rose

Researching your family history can be complex at the best of times, but finding information on certain types of ancestors can present extra challenges. It is often difficult to track down records on African American ancestors, especially if they were enslaved and did not enjoy legal status as human beings; the typical paper trail is missing and you may require special resources. Frazine Taylor’s Researching African American Genealogy in Alabama can guide you to collections and strategies that you might have overlooked in your search.

One common genealogical resource is the U.S. Federal Census, but did you know that a state census can be helpful to you as well?
The Alabama Constitution of 1865 required the taking of a census of the inhabitants of the state in 1866. All heads of households were counted . . . The census taker had to classify the whole population into two classes: black and white (the black included all persons of color). Each class was then subdivided into male and female, according to age, so that the enumeration showed how many of each class were under ten, how many between ten and twenty, between twenty and thirty, and so forth. The Alabama 1866 Census is significant for African Americans in Alabama and may be the only place African American’s can be found before the next census in 1870.
So the answer to your brick wall may be on a state or local level. Or if you have an enslaved ancestor, finding information on that person could involve tracking the movements of the slaveholder and studying migration patterns. Military records can also be useful, since African Americans have played their part in American wars from the Revolution to the present day.

One chapter that really caught my attention was the one on the importance of oral history; this instantly calls to mind the slave interviews carried out by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. Collecting oral history—those “family stories”—is just as relevant now but can be full of pitfalls, and there are guidelines in this chapter for how to conduct an oral history interview.

Another very useful feature of Taylor’s book is a listing of resources held by various Alabama counties. The section for each county includes contact information for the probate judge offices, research support groups in the area, and types of records held such as deeds and wills, Orphan Court records, dower records, and probate court minutes.

Even though Researching African American Genealogy in Alabama is around ten years old, it is still an excellent guidebook. If you are interested in finding out more about African American genealogy research and would like to meet Ms. Taylor, don’t miss the Beyond the Basics of Genealogy class coming up at Birmingham Public Library. Frazine Taylor and Donna Cox Baker of Alabama Heritage magazine will present “The Beyond Kin Project: Making the Slave Connection” on Sunday, February 25, 2:30-4:00 p.m., in Central Library's Arrington Auditorium. This program promises to be a fascinating look at plantation genealogy research, so if you are interested, sign up to reserve your spot by calling 205-226-3665 or register through the BPL events calendar. Don’t miss out on this exciting new resource.

For further information:
Frazine Taylor on Facebook
Frazine Taylor on The Beyond Kin Project
Donna Cox Baker on The Beyond Kin Project
African American Research Sources at Alabama State University
Frazine Taylor at Alabama Bound 2009
Frazine Taylor at IGHR
Birmingham Public Library Tips for African-American Genealogical Research