Taylor’s introduction to genealogy began when she became the head of ready reference in the 1980s at the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH). She was not there long before she noticed how difficult it was for African Americans to find archival information about their personal family histories. This realization motivated her to learn more about family history, and she began comprising methods specifically for researching African American genealogy.
Only six months into her job at the archives, Taylor was whisked off to Chicago for a conference about African American genealogy. As a representative of the ADAH, she was the guest speaker, but she knew that her knowledge base about the subject was just starting to develop. “I had never done anything in depth,” she said, “but I learned there that I didn’t only need to tell about my own family. I needed to create a plan so others are able to find theirs.”
Taylor had spent some time working on her family history, but her research stalled once documentation relating to generations past her grandparents became scarce. She persevered and discovered many different types of documents in the archives that could help her approach finding the missing information in her family history. She found many documents—such as property records, inventories, deeds, wills, bills of sale, slave manifests, prison records, family Bibles, federal census reports, and even Alabama Power and Tennessee Valley Authority records detailing black workers and company housing—which helped fill in gaps in her family tree. For example, Taylor came across a Russell County property appraisal from 1851, allowing her to discover a link to her great-great-grandmother, who was listed as a “negro woman and child” alongside values of hogs, sheep, calves, and farmland. This woman had a name. She was Milly Harrington, Taylor’s great-great-grandmother, alongside her daughter Louisa, previously only known to Taylor as her great-grandmother “Lou.”
Taylor says that two other sources— records from the Federal Writers’ Project and the Freedmen’s Bureau—also have invaluable information available for African American genealogists. The US government paid those with the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program, to record the oral histories of people throughout the country, including the narratives of an estimated 2,300 former slaves. These histories provide much helpful information for African Americans searching for clues in their genealogical research. Additionally, records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, an organization created by the federal government to help former slaves transition to freed men after the Civil War ended, can provide excellent leads. The formation of the Freedmen’s Bureau led to the practice of keeping records in central locations instead of spreading documents throughout the state in individual counties. This change led to a much more efficient way of record keeping. Also, these records are being indexed through the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, an effort to digitize all of these records and make them available online, allowing Taylor and others to discover their ancestry beyond a few generations.
Genealogical research can be a difficult and challenging pursuit for African Americans, and Taylor acknowledges that it does become “a lifetime of work.” However, she also realizes that researching her ancestors and all of those African Americans potentially lost to history is well worth the time and effort.
FROM THE EDITORS:
Researching African American ancestry can be most difficult due to the scarcity of documentation, but records, as Taylor notes, may be found in unexpected places in Alabama. The ADAH is an excellent resource for researching, but other libraries also contain wonderful information for African American genealogists. Small and large university collections often have helpful resources. For example, the University of Alabama’s W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library is an excellent resource, as is Auburn University’s Special Collections and Archives. Alabama’s public libraries sometimes also have special collections, so be sure to check their resources, too.
Along with archives and library collections, researchers should also explore church records. Many African American churches originated from traditionally white churches, and the records from the original church sometimes note slaves and free people of color in their documents. Genealogists can consult the denominational archives for church records, and the Birmingham Public Library has the records of the Episcopal Church in Alabama in its archives department.
As Taylor mentioned, Freedmen’s Bureau records are valuable to researchers. Many of these records are available at universities and archives, and Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, has the entire set. These documents also contain work contracts of former slaves, a listing of all persons in the household by name, and records of people who received aid in the hospitals. Another helpful resource is the 1867 voter registration listing for all heads of households in Alabama by county. Alabama’s documents are indexed and available online at the ADAH website at www.archives.alabama.gov/voterreg/.