Black History and Culture is a special edition of 15 features devoted to the history and heritage of African Americans in Pennsylvania, from the American Revolution to World War II, published December 1977.

Genealogy has replaced astrology as America’s favorite topic at social gatherings. Several factors are responsible in sparking the present upsurge in Black genealogy. The civil rights movement of the 1960’s encouraged a feeling of Black solidarity that had not existed before. Marches, demonstrations, and mass jailings brought together diverse elements of the Black community and made them feel as one. These activities prompted a realization that the Black community was not as dispersed as some had believed.

The fictionalized Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman also had a tremendous impact when that powerful drama was beamed across the nation via television. Miss Pittman, a Black woman, related her family life from the time of slavery and reconstruction to the civil rights movement. This history of a Black family’s efforts to overcome ad­versity stimulated awareness and captured the interest of Black America. More recently, the television adaptation of Alex Haley’s book, Roots, drew considerable attention to the genealogy of Blacks.

Little has been written on Black genealogy. It is a subject that white genealogists have patently avoided. It is not true that Black genealogy cannot be pursued, though the obstacles are many. Perhaps the most significant obsta­cle to its recovery has been slavery and the separations that that institution imposed on families. There were also illiteracy, geographical separation through migration, changes of name, segregation, problems within the Black community itself, lack or loss of records, and, especially, the shame that has long been associated with Africa and slavery.

Dating back to slavery, when family life was most brutally disrupted, the struggle to maintain family ties is a continuing theme of Black American history. Slave masters, supported by legal and judicial machinery of their own making, concentrated on destroying Black families during those long years. The attempted rescue from slavery – escapes before sales that separated children and parents, the purchase of wife or brother – attested to families’ continuous efforts to be united. That was the immediate concern. But records also point to the longings of people to know their roots.

After emancipation, the reunion of separated families was difficult at best, and numerous factors continued to work against family stability. Yet neither the vast power of the slaveocracy nor its legacy of racism could quench the thirst for freedom or the struggle of Black families for knowledge of their history. Each is an integral part of life for a free people. And so has genealogy and history – the passing on of family ancestries and histories from one generation to the next, most often by word of mouth – been a central concern of Black Americans throughout our history.

Miscegenation and racial mixing, with all of its stigmas, is a commonplace in the tracing of Black genealogy and has created monumental problems. Because of the complex relationships between the native white population and vast numbers of Blacks, Spaniards, and Indians (native Americans), intermingling of blood lines from the time of the founding fathers to the present day is an obstacle of which searchers of family must be aware. Today, more than sixty percent of Black Americans have a mixture of Indian blood in their veins. Another significant segment is the Creoles, persons of mixed Black and French heritage, who settled in Louisiana. Their influence can still be felt within the structure of many Black families. Cape Verdeans, a mixture of African and Portuguese, originated from the Azores and settled primarily in two areas, New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Brunswick, Georgia. Another group is the Geechees, a concentration of Afro-Americans who settled in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. They retain many of their own traditions from Yorbua tribes in West Africa and speak a mixture of broken English and their own African dialect.

Another problem in tracing Black genealogy is the phenomenon of “passing,” which I have termed “The Scar of Shame.” Many Blacks, as well as whites, will discover family members who found it necessary or advan­tageous to “pass” into Caucasian society, for many and varied reasons. As a result, present-day descendants may find themselves protecting this knowledge about their family structure. If persons searching for their genealogical heritage are to become successful in their quest, they must overcome any hesitancy or anxiety in looking to sources other than the ordinary in their pursuit of family histories.



It was for my own personal satisfaction that I began tracing my own family. I wanted to know where I came from. This interest had been an early one for me, but I did not pursue it for many years because I didn’t know how–and thought it impossible to do. My first step was to extract from my parents every bit of information about our family that they had. When I first started, I could go back to my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. I knew he was a runaway slave who had escaped on the Underground Railroad from Delaware to Canada. As I proceeded, the search became more fascinating. More and more pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place, and I was lured into finding others.

Some of the successes I have had in tracing my own family can be directly attributed to records I found concerning the white Blocksons. I learned that they came to this country from Scotland in 1744, arriving in Northamp­ton County, Pennsylvania. Later they settled in Virginia and founded the town of Bloxom (the original spelling of the family’s name). In 1770, John Blocksom, who had moved from Virginia to Sussex County, Delaware, owned seven slaves. The Black Blocksoms are descended from this slave owner.

Upon continuing my research, I discovered a family Bible in the possession of a Black relative in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. The Bible dated from 1811 and included three different spellings for our family name – Blocksom, Blocksome, Blackson. At the Hall of Records in Dover, Delaware, I located the will of my Black great-great-grandfather (see illustration). In Seaford, Delaware, a building still stands which the State of Delaware built on land purchased from the Blocksom family. These represent but a few of the sources I have used in tracing my family.



In order to compile a family history, one must obviously begin with what is already known and whatever resources are close at hand. This simply means that you begin with yourself and relatives with whom you are in communication. The most important step is, at the very beginning, to work out a system of organization of your choosing – file cards or an indexed notebook. Be sure that it is used consistently for every bit of information you glean. It is important that you record not only specific information, but the source of that information and the date it was obtained. Information on each person should be kept on a separate card or page, with room left for further facts to be added as they are obtained. Write down all pertinent information that is available and include the following:

  1. Name
  2. Date and place of birth
  3. Name and residences of parents
  4. Date and place of death
  5. Occupation
  6. Church, political, club or society affiliations
  7. Public offices held
  8. Military service
  9. Honors received
  10. Change of name due to marriage

There are numerous resources everyone can use, many of which he may not know exist. The lay person can do some independent searching and does not need to be an expert (who is in this field?) or a historian. The most important thing is to go back as far as possible in your searching, which will on occasion be painful and require infinite patience. Black searchers might well find it help­ful to understand some of the history that has provided the resources that will greatly aid them.

Pennsylvania was one of the pioneers in establishing institutions where records were kept pertaining to Black lifestyles. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society, founded in Philadelphia in 1775 by a group of Quakers and others who sought to protect the rights of freedmen and slaves, was instrumental in recording names, birth dates, and judicial cases pertaining to Blacks, especially those concerning apprenticeships. The society’s primary objective was the abolishment of slavery, and its activities finally reached out into other parts of the world. Due to its influence and those affiliated with it – Anthony Benezet, Thomas Paine, Dr. Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and the Marquis de LaFayette – schools were established and slaves were protected. Similar societies sprang up, which to this day will prove to be excellent sources for those who are tracing their genealogy.

Credit must be given to the free Black community in Philadelphia during the mid 1700’s for the establishment of the Free African Society – a mutual-aid society – libraries, burial grounds, the Afro American Insurance Company, the Mother Bethel Church under leadership of Richard Allen, and other beneficial groups and societies. Check the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for these sources.

The Black searcher of family history must be inquisitive, persistent, and diligent, leaving not a source untapped. Many will be anticipated, others will not:

  • There is a vast amount of information that can be obtained from runaway-slave ads that are found in colonial Pennsylvania newspapers. These ads often gave descriptions of the runaways, male and female, distinctive markings, language spoken by slaves (many were familiar with English, French, Spanish, and Pennsylvania Dutch), and names and locations of their owners. The origin of the slave was vital: Ibo, Guinea, Dahomey, Nigeria.
  • Since the days of captivity in this country, Blacks have been aware of the importance of the written record, though often they were able only to make a mark-perhaps an “X”. Freed Blacks who could read and write recorded the birth, baptism, marriage, and death records in family Bibles that still exist. Even in slaveholding territories, masters made sure that these records were maintained in family Bibles and special account books kept for purposes of business. Interestingly enough it was the combined efforts of Blacks and whites that established the family Bible as a recognized and valued source of information.
  • Early church records are another source of public information. Historic Christ Church, located in Philadel­phia, maintained records of Blacks from 1717 to 1760, both baptismal and marriage. From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, Black churches often maintained records of their members, and in many cases, these records exist today. The Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, kept excellent records of Black slaves that it purchased and later hired upon giving them their freedom. These Blacks par­ticipated in many of the Moravian religious services, es­pecially the musical aspect of worship, and curiously enough, they were also buried side by side with their fellow Moravians.
  • Records of Black cemeteries still provide a historical link to the colonial past. Scattered throughout the State, these cemeteries were established because Blacks could not be buried alongside their white countrymen. In some parts of Pennsylvania this was in fact illegal. Consequently, Black cemeteries could be found near Black churches throughout the State.
  • Employment records often prove fruitful in tracing the genealogy of Blacks. Great numbers of them labored in the ironworks of Pennsylvania, such as the Durham, Hopewell Village, and Cornwall forges. Blacks also labored in the charcoal industry throughout the State. Many of the employment records give names and excellent descriptions of the workers.
  • Negro courts would be another source of information, especially those set up to, handle cases involving Blacks in Chester, Delaware, and Philadelphia counties. Names, nature of cases, judicial proceedings, and outcomes of cases were a matter of record in the Quarter Sessions. By the very nature of these courts, information was com­prehensive.
  • City directories which contained heads of families, place or residence, and occupations were maintained. As early as the 1820’s, several directories referred to Blacks with asterisks, crosses, or daggers. Much later, additional family members were added to these municipal directories.


Charles Blockson was educated at The Pennsylvania State University. As an author, lecturer, and teacher in Black history, Charles is ubiquitous. He is president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society: on the Board of Directors, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; and a member of the Pennsylvania State Historical and Record Advisory Board. He has published two popular monographs, Pennsylvania’s Black History and Black Genealogy, and is planning more. He is a consultant in human rights for the Norristown School District.