Michael Lee Pope: African-American family histories can be difficult to come by, but rewarding to find

Roundup: Talking About History

For African-Americans, researching genealogy can be a frustrating prospect. During the time of slavery, an individual’s last name may or may not have changed after being sold from one owner to another. Because slaves were often legally banned from marrying each other, a married couple might not have the same last name; then again, they might not. Free blacks were frequently in court trying to get permission for all manor of activities, so court records can be a wealth of information. But wading through them is tedious and frustrating. After slavery, records become increasingly difficult to find as African Americans were marginalized and segregated out of many archives.

“I never said this was going to be easy,” said Char McCargo Bah, a Stafford-based genealogist who led a recent class on African-American ancestry last week at the Barrett Branch Library. “You are going to have to get in the habit of looking at the neighborhood.”

Bah, a native Alexandrian and professional genealogist, has years of expertise on researching African-American families. She is the historian for the Virginia Genealogical Society and a longtime member of the D.C. Genealogical Society’s executive board. She has written articles for a wealth of publications, and she frequently appears on television giving advice to African Americans in search of their lost ancestors. Her advice: Learn as much about their neighborhood as you can.

“Sometimes you have to do the genealogy of a whole neighborhood to find your people,” she told a handful of attendees who braved a rainstorm to learn about research techniques. “When someone disappears off of the tax records, they are probably dead.”

KNOWING THE TRICKS of digging through an archive is important to anyone who has ever tried to find out more about their mother’s mother or that uncle nobody knew much about. Bah’s lecture featured documents from her own family’s history, including vital records reporting births, marriages and deaths. One of the best places to start, she said, was census records. The Barrett Branch Library has complete census records going back hundreds of years, many of which include extremely specific detail about individuals and their professions.

“Sometimes people don’t realize that census records tell a story,” said Bah. “They are like a face.”...

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