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African American Genealogy: 1. Getting Started / Collecting Oral Histories

This guide provides a beginner's introduction to African American Genealogy research, as well as an overview of available resources at the New York Public Library and beyond.

Genealogy Research Begins at Home

“In the beginning stages of any genealogical endeavor, it is important to contact all living relatives for any information they might be able to provide about the family.” - Witcher, C. B. (2000). African American genealogy: a bibliography and guide to sources. Fort Wayne, IN: Round Tower Books.

Photo of African American Family

U. S. Senator Hiram Revels and Family

Conducting the Interview

Professional genealogists all say that conducting oral histories, interviewing relatives, and gathering family documents is the best place to begin ancestry research. It is best to start with the closest relative (mother, father, etc.) and work backwards.  But what kind of questions should you ask? According to Barbara Thompson Howell, author of How to Trace Your African-American Roots : Discovering Your Unique History, the foundation of your questions should be:

  1. Who is this person? (for example, is she really an aunt or just a close family friend)
  2. When did it happen? (dates are vital to genealogy research)
  3. Where did it happen? (locations are vital to genealogy research)
  4. Ask about family documents

Other important topics to cover:

  • Personal names
  • Dates
  • Places of Birth
  • Marriage
  • Death
  • Occupations
  • Religious Affiliations
  • Military Service
  • Educational Background
  • Stories & Anecdotal Information

Collecting Documentation

It is important to collect oral history, but family archival history can be just as important. What type of documentation should you be looking for? Here are some examples:

  • Family bibles  (1933 was when all states required registration of births, a family bible might be the only listing of birth dates prior to 1933.)
  • Funeral programs
  • Letters
  • Photos
  • Scrapbooks
  • Baby books
  • Diaries
  • Yearbooks
  • Diplomas
  • Certificates
  • Memorabilia (i.e. sorority pin, military awards)


Resources for Interviewing Family Members

Conducting family interviews is not always easy, especially if there were traumatic events within the family history. There are a number of resources to help with this important step in the genealogical process. Also, most genealogy guidebooks contain sections on interviewing family members, you can see some of these guidebooks in this guide underneath the tab, Preliminary Research.