Think You Can’t Research Your African American Family History? Think Again.

Posted by Ancestry Team on November 3, 2015 in 
WebsiteBy Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Paul Rawlins, Editorial Manager at Ancestry


Reposted from

Censuses aren’t the only records that can help you find the names of your formerly enslaved ancestors. In most states, birth and death certificates didn’t become mandatory until the early 20th century. But death certificates and indexes, like the following entry from Georgia, often list the names of the deceased’s parents:


Charlie Anthony died in 1925, well into the 20th century. His birth date is listed as 1869, but his parents, Lem Anthony and Louvenia Jones, would both have been born well before the end of the Civil War.

Wills and probates, emancipation and manumission papers, and slave schedules are other records that help you get back further into the 19th century. Ancestry also has a free guide to African American research that outlines additional sources and strategies. The main point is your family doesn’t stop—or begin, rather—at the 1870 census. Records may get thin, but don’t give up before you even search.

Finding Your Home in Africa with DNA

So what if you aren’t among the small percentage of people who find a census record that lists Africa as a birthplace for one of their ancestors? Remember, the slave trade was illegal starting in 1808, so most former slaves who were alive in 1870 would have been born in the United States. But even if you do find an ancestor who said they had been born in Africa, Africa is a very large continent, not a single country like France or England. And our ancestors mostly came from a variety of locations all along the west and west-central coasts of the continent. That’s where DNA testing comes in.

DNA testing will provide two different sets of results. The first is an ethnicity estimate, also known in genetic circles as “admixture,” which predicts where in Africa, Europe, and elsewhere your various ancestors originated over the last 500 years or so. (This test will also give you your percentage of Native American ancestry.) On average, Americans who have taken the AncestryDNA test and identify as black will have four different areas out of the nine identified from Africa appear in their ethnicity results. DNA testing may be the best way, and is often the only way, to trace your roots back to a specific area or people in Africa.

A DNA test will also compare your test results to the results of everybody else who has taken the test, looking for genetic matches, or “cousins.”

At the Tom Joyner Family Reunion, four members of the cast of the 1970s sitcom Good Times took an AncestryDNA test—including John Amos, who played Kunta Kinte on Roots—and are waiting for their results.

In African American Lives, we tested my friend Tom Joyner, and his results were quite fascinating: he was 62 percent sub-Saharan African, 35 percent European, and 3 percent Native American, while his y-DNA (his father’s paternal line) matched males living in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, especially Ireland. Fully 35 percent of all African American males trace their paternal genetic ancestry to Europe, rather than to Africa.

My own results are also eye opening. Like Tom’s, my father’s paternal line traces straight to the United Kingdom, in fact to Ireland. And my admixture percentages are even more surprising: According to AncestryDNA, I’m 50 percent African and 48 percent European, with less than 1 percent Native American, which is a surprise to my cousins! My African genetic heritage breaks down among the following regions:

  • Cameroon/Congo 17%
  • Benin/Togo 13%
  • Ivory Coast/Ghana 8%
  • Nigeria 7%

Since these are all key areas in the slave trade, this result is not a surprise. All African Americans reflect in their genomes the great diversity of the points of origin of their African ancestors.

With scientific advances like DNA testing and new records coming online every day, there’s never been a better time for an African American to start uncovering the story of their own past. And judging from the hugs, screams, and high fives the Ancestry team got in Orlando, it’s never been more exciting, either.

Do you have a mystery in your own family tree? Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his team of Ancestry experts your question at

See the world vital record link to start tracing your American ancestors.

Link to my other posts

Product of the African slave trade link to Black History posts

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