Several good ďhow toĒ books on conducting African American genealogy have been published. They include Black Genealogy, by Charles Blockson, Ethnic Genealogy, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, and Black Genesis, by James Rose and Alice Eichholz. Tracing Your Mississippi Ancestors, by Anne Lipscomb Webster and Kathleen Hutchison, is a guide to researching at the Mississippi state archives that includes a chapter on minority research. All of these books are available at the archives.
At the archives you will probably begin by consulting one of these sources:
Every ten years the federal government takes a census of the persons living in the United States. The census is indexed and may include such information as the names of each member of the household and his or her age, occupation, place of birth, number of years married, etc. Always begin with the most recent census that would include a member of your family. As you go back through the census years, you will find that less and less information was asked of the respondents, so you will obtain less information in the early years. Slaves were not recorded by name on the census schedules. Only free blacks will be included on census records prior to 1870.
The slave schedules are also federal census records, but the slaves are not listed by name. The only names given are the slave owners or overseers; still, the records do give the gender and age of each slave, and this information can be helpful as circumstantial evidence that a person being researched might have been one of the slaves listed. The slave schedules are arranged by county and then by the name of the slave owner. The archives has indexes available for the 1850 and 1860 censuses. The slaves are not named but are listed by age and sex.
Marriage records prior to 1926 found in Mississippi courthouses by the Works Progress Administration were indexed (using the Soundex Code) according to the name of the groom. There is no cross-index for brides. The information provided on the microfilm index includes name of groom, name of bride, date of record, name of presiding official, county of marriage, and the book and page where the marriage is recorded.
The marriage records are only a portion of the fifty microfilm rolls pertaining to the operation of the Mississippi Freedmenís Bureau. These records include marriage records of some of the newly freed slaves. The information provided includes names of parties, ages, and places of birth and residence. Most of the marriages recorded in this source took place in Warren County and involve grooms who served in the United States Colored Troops. An index created by an interested researcher is available on the Internet.
These records are also from the Freedmenís Bureau microfilm collection. Some 36,000 former slaves are listed on the contracts, which record the freedmenís agreement to work for a planter, possibly their former master, for a fee, medical care, housing, and sometimes a share of the crop. These records contain such information as the county of residence, name of the planter, plantation name (if it had one), name of freedman, age, and terms of pay. Sometimes family units or relationships are indicated on the contracts. Labor contracts are indexed (by freedmen, planter, and plantation).
The Freedmanís Savings and Trust Company was established by Congress as a banking institution for the benefit of the newly freed slaves. Archives holdings include only the registers from Natchez, Columbus, and Vicksburg. In addition to the name of the depositor, the register often includes the age, place of birth, residence, occupation, and names of parents, wife, and children. Some of the applications even contain the names of former owners.
The archives has marriage records from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and death records for 1912 to 1943. The archives has name indexes for the death records by year. In addition to information about the deceased, the death records normally give the names and places of birth of the parents of the deceased.
The State Department of Health maintains birth and death records from November 1912 forward. Information on how to purchase copies of birth, death, marriage, and divorce records not found at the archives is online at the Vital Records office of the State Department of Health Web site.
One of the best sources for documenting slave ownership is the probate and deed records. The probate records relate to the disposition of a personís estate; they are found in the county where the deceased lived. Considered as property, many times slaves would be mentioned in a will and inventory of an estate. If a slave owner died indebted, his real and personal property was often sold by court order to satisfy debts. Court records, especially probate court records, will frequently contain bills of sale that list the name and value of the slave along with the name of the buyer. Often, a slave owner would make a deed of gift of a slave to one of his children. The slave name would not appear in the deed index, but rather under the name of the owner. Occasionally, early deeds will cite a previous county and state of residence. Some of these county records are available at the archives on microfilm, but many remain only in the courthouses. The county land and tax records from after 1865 may be used to help document a familyís presence in a county during a particular time period.
The archives collection includes hundreds of court cases from the files of the High Court of Errors and Appeals (forerunner of the State Supreme Court). Cases that were thought to have valuable genealogical data were indexed by Mary Flowers Hendrix and published in Mississippi Court Records 1799–1859. This volume is indexed, but only by the name of the contesting parties, so slave names are not mentioned in the index. In addition to this printed index, a database for later years has been established for the various court cases on file at MDAH, but again, the only entries are the individual parties named in the suit.
The private records collection includes an assortment of diaries, business and plantation journals, letters, and church records. The church records contain membership lists, black and white, as well as baptism and burial information. African Americans: A Mississippi Sourcebook, compiled by Anne Lipscomb Webster, gives a thumbnail sketch of many of the collections that would be useful to persons seeking information on African Americans in Mississippi.
The WPA is one of the most frequently requested official records. In the late 1930s, the workers of this organization compiled county histories by interviewing county residents and studying the county newspapers. The information contained in the histories varies from county to county, but education, churches, and prominent persons in the black community are topics that were frequently included. Sections of the WPA files have been published. The slave narratives were edited by George P. Rawick and published in a series titled The American Slave.
In 1917 and 1918 men born between 1872 and 1900 provided personal information to the United States Draft Board. The men did not always register in the county of their residence. Since illiteracy rates were especially high in the South, the names are frequently misspelled. A multi-volume printed index by Raymond Banks is now available.
A state record that has proven invaluable to researchers trying to locate elusive families is the census of educable children. These files list the names and ages of children ages five to eighteen and, beginning in 1885, their parent or guardian. When families are missed by the census taker, they are frequently found on these records. The dates for these records vary county to county. The oldest date to 1850, while others are as late as the 1950s (twenty years beyond the last available federal census).