Hege Library & Learning Technologies

African-American Genealogy

Guide to genealogy resources about slaves and free people of color, especially for North Carolina

Introduction

Alex Haley's groundbreaking novel, Roots, gave genealogy - formerly for royalty - to everybody. Ironically, Americans have a difficult time finding African ancestors because of the institution of slavery. The lower social status of people in bondage gave them tally marks instead of names, few surnames, no property to be recorded in deeds, and therefore fewer written records than their white contemporaries.

Records that do exist are becoming more and more available. As genealogists index slaves' names in deeds and wills, local records can be shared across the internet to other locations.

Members of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, fought against slavery in various ways. When North Carolina laws prevented any owner from freeing a slave, North Carolina Yearly Meeting (a Quaker organization) became the official "owner" of slaves who wanted to remain in the state. NCYM records at Friends Historical Collection contain overall records of the fight against slavery, but not many names of individual slaves (see the Books and Manuscripts tab).

However, the names are contained in deeds, estates and wills kept by each county. Several counties have projects underway to index these records and scan them for internet access (see the Books and the Online Resources tabs).

Abbreviated Timeline - North Carolina Quakers and Slavery

1774 - Thomas Newby of Perquimans Monthly Meeting (Quakers in eastern North Carolina) reports that he is "uneasy on account of slave-keeping" and wants to free his slaves.

1777 - Newby and other Friends (Quakers) free their slaves. But other men kidnap the newly freedmen and sell them. N.C. Friends begin a long era of court battles as they try to find the best way to help their oppressed fellowmen.

1778 - North Carolina Yearly Meeting (NCYM) forbids the buying and selling of slaves. Monthly meetings (local churches) disown members who do so. However, local courts often denied requests for manumission (freeing a slave).

1791 - N.C. allows manumission, but only with a huge fee (up to 1,000 pounds) and the requirement that the slave leave the state. With court cases too expensive for individuals, the NCYM hires lawyers to help.

Around 1808 - To protect slaves freed by Quakers from the constant threat of traders, NCYM becomes their official "owner." NCYM creates the "Meeting for Sufferings" to take care of them.

1826-ca 1832 - NCYM sends freed slaves to Haiti. After mixed reports, some refuse to go and interest wanes.

1827-1831 - NCYM sends freed slaves to a colony in Liberia, Africa. Good reports return, but the difficult and expensive journey discourages future attempts.

1830s-1860s - Friends help free slaves move to free states in the north and midwest. Some Friends help escaped slaves reach the free states via the "Underground Railroad."

1865 - The end of the American Civil War brings emancipation for all slaves.

1860s and beyond - Friends and other organizations run schools for the freedmen; six are operating in 1867. Some disappeared and some morphed into public schools in the 20th century. Solomon Blair's school in High Point, for example, became William Penn High School.