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When looking for an African-American ancestor, start at the Carver Genealogy Center

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Cynthia Evans runs the Carver Genealogy Center in East Austin. "A lot of information can be obtained online,” Evans says, “but most people can't completely locate or research their family history by just searching online." [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

At some point, almost anyone whose ancestors came to this country from Europe, Asia, the Middle East or certain parts of Latin America — and who wants to trace their family tree — attempts to locate key federal immigration records.

Not so for African-Americans, most of whose ancestors came to this country unwillingly and were considered property, not immigrants.

“Slavery and the issues relating to slavery are the biggest obstacles for African-Americans seeking their ancestors,” says Cynthia Evans, genealogy coordinator at the Carver Genealogy Center in East Austin. “Lack of documentation and missing documentation are significant issues for the African-American community. That said, the obstacles for every family search can be different and varied.”

For instance, slavery — and especially the slave trade — left behind crucial clues. As property, slaves were the subjects of commercial, legal and banking records, as well as medical records, since many of the charity hospitals in the South were set up to maintain the health of enslaved blacks.

"One would think that slavery left behind significant clues, and indeed they may be there, but they are difficult to find for many reasons," Evans says. "They can be lost, misplaced, destroyed ... accidentally and sometimes on purpose. Whatever the reason, African-American genealogy research can be very difficult. The best course of action is to keep an open mind and follow any and all leads."

Where to start?

“A lot of information can be obtained online,” Evans says, “but most people can't completely locate or research their family history by just searching online. Not all information is available online. Most serious genealogists end up making family history trips to ancestral home states or countries to try to locate information that isn't available online.”

Once you get really serious, Evans adds, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, is another critical destination. FamilySearch, an arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, operates that library.

Long before purchasing airline tickets to Utah, however, one should start at the Carver Genealogy Center, located at the city’s oldest permanent library building at 1165 Angelina St., which comes with its own interesting ancestry.

The simple brick building with a gabled entrance was once the Central Library and was located downtown. When a larger, more ornate building was opened in 1933 at 810 Guadalupe St. — it has served as the Austin History Center since 1979 — what is now the Carver Genealogy Center structure was moved east to serve as the library for the then-segregated African-American community.

“We offer four databases that are free to the public,” Evans says. “Each one offers collections relative to researching African-American history. Additionally, we offer a beginning genealogy class nine months out of the year for those who are unsure about how to get started.”

Records of enslaved ancestors, she says, differ from location to location.

“Some states or places were more diligent about maintaining and keeping records than other states,” Evans says. “It's a good idea to check with state and local history centers and repositories to get a better understanding of what types of historical records are available in the state.”

Several local archives can be treasure troves, especially for those whose families lived for generations in Texas. The Austin History Center, which covers only Travis County history, has the added advantage of an archivist set aside for the African-American community.

“The Texas State Library and Archives offers a wealth of information on genealogy that relates to Texas and other states,” Evans says. “The Texas Department of State Health Services holds vital records, too, as does the Texas General Land Office.”

African-American Genealogy Tips

Source: Carver Genealogy Center

• Fill out a genealogical chart provided by the center. Talk to your family to fill in information that you don’t know.

• The latest released census is from 1940. Start with family members born before the 1940s and work backward, or you could start with the person you are looking for, but you may need to use records other than the census.

• 1870-1940 — Finding your relative is usually not a problem. This is where your chart comes in handy.

• 1860 — Before this date, it is important to know if your relative was free or enslaved.

• 1790-1840 — During this period, only heads of households listed in census.

• Most states were required to keep vital records starting in the early 20th century.

• Get to know the history of the area, state, city, county, etc., as well as the history of African-Americans in the area.

• 1870 — This year saw the first census to identify African-Americans by name, but it did not identify relationships.

• 1880 — Starting in this year, relationships are identified.

Places to look for information for the period after 1860

• State census records.

• Voter registration lists for 1867

• Marriage/cohabitation records

• Freedmen’s Bureau records

• Military records

• Tax records

• Land records

• Church records

• Newspapers

Places to look for information for the period before 1860

Was your relative enslaved or a free person of color?

Enslaved

• Look for records that would have specifically documented people who were enslaved.

• Petitions

• Bills of sale

• Estate records/probates

• Family diaries/papers

• Newspapers (runaway ads)

Free people of color

• City directories

• Tax records

• Petitions

• Military

• Land records

• Newspapers

• Probate records