Census schedules and Black genealogical research: one family's experience


Government publications are essential tools in genealogical research. Second only to the oral history a person hears around the holiday table or at a grandparent's knee, federal, state, and city records can help verify a relative's birth/death, marriage/divorce or time spent in an a particular area of the country. Is it naive to assume that government records can provide clues to family history for a member of a minority group? Members of minority groups sometimes take a skeptical view of what government records might provide them in the way of personal information. Can Black Americans in particular find accurate government records of their families? Does family history research differ for Black Americans? This article reviews one family's success using the more well known census of population schedules. Additionally how Black Americans were recorded from slave schedules to the 1920 census is also reviewed.

The public generally thinks of statistics when the word "census" is discussed. Census statistics are derived from the forms that each U.S. citizen completes every ten years. In the early days of the United States census enumerators were dispatched across the land to count noses. Census forms, or "schedules" with the household's information, were carefully prepared. The National Archives and its regional offices throughout the country have the microfilm sets of the population schedules from every state. The citizens of Colorado have access to these early schedules at the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood.

To be honest, as a Black-biracial female I did not have much faith that early government records would be of any use in my genealogical research. My father is Black American and my mother Dutch-Indonesian and a naturalized U.S. citizen. It was as a guest lecturer in a University of Colorado at Boulder course on African American Families in the U.S. taught by Dr. Jualynne Dodson that I accidentally began to uncover my family history. The students were asked to conduct genealogical research of at least four generations to compare their family history to events occuring in the Black community during the same period. It was quite by accident that I would benefit from this class assignment also. Dr. Dodson ask me to lecture about the use of census schedules in family history research. I decided to use my father's family to demonstrate how a student might be able to complete the class assignment. Unsure of whether I could do this successfully I researched my father's family at the Denver Federal Center prior to lecturing to the classes. In my success of finding census records I realized that I initially had doubts about the existence of census records for my family. I should not have been so pessimistic. This web article provides a step-by-step approach to the process of searching federal population schedules using my experience as an example. The issue of the integrity of data recovered in federal records is also discussed. Lastly, a list of Denver-Boulder genealogical resources is provided for the general public to consider in family research.

Genealogists may discover family history in a variety of govenment documents. Military, land, naturalization records, or passenger lists are just a few examples. Coloradoans are very fortunate to have access to some incredible genealogy resources in their state. Not every state is the site of a regional archive facility. In the Denver-Boulder area alone, the public has access to the National Archives Rocky Mountain Region center, the Colorado State Archives, the Historical Society of Colorado, the Western History and Genealogy collection at the Denver Public Library, the Church of Latter Day Saints Family History Centers, and a wide variety of local genealogy research groups. Genealogists can also find resources in cyberspace with the advent of genealogy discussion groups on the Internet. What is not so well known is that these very sources of genealogy information can also assist members of minority groups in family history research. In particular Black Americans may fare better with government records than they might think.

National Archives, Rocky Mountain Region

Genealogy researchers advise beginning family historians to start with the present and work back in time. Fortunately there are many well written books that can help in this process. Check with your local book dealer or contact a local genealogical society for recommendations. Interview the immediate living relatives and try to photocopy any documents such as birth or death certificates that they are willing to share. As a teenager my sister began collecting information about family members from both sides of our family. She shared copies of documents that family relatives gave her along the way. To begin my search I interviewed my father about our family history. He told me everything he could remember about Garland, his father, and Oliver, his grandfather. According to Hollis family history my great-grandfather Oliver was a butcher in Georgia in the early 1900's. His wife's name was Lilly and they had 7 children that Richard, my father, was aware of -- Joseph, Gertrude, Edwinah, Rosa, and Garland, my father's father, were the five names that he could remember.

Be sure to ask about exact geographic locations when interviewing family members. In my case, my father was not sure of the exact location in Georgia but he was able to provide the names of his aunts and uncles which proved very helpful since they were rather unique. My father was my link to this side of the family since both of his parents are deceased. With this information I began my search at the National Archives, Rocky Mountain Region office at the Denver Federal Center. | next section| |Table of Contents|

Links to genealogical resources

Afrigeneas| |Colorado Genealogical Society| |National Archives and Records Administration| |U.S. Census Bureau| |National Genealogical Society| |Federation of Genealogical Societies| |social & family history links|

Date last modified: 2/98 Send comments to author Deborah Hollis. Note: Copyright 1996 Deborah R. Hollis. Unlimited permission to copy or use is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.