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.

Recent publications and media presentations have spurred an unusual interest in genealogical research. This enthusiasm extends from the academic community to large numbers of lay people who are attempting to retrace their roots.

As is well known, genealogical research in its simplest form results in the ability to construct a blood-line tree that presents the kinship relationships between people who have common ancestors. Here, we will make no attempt to explore the various techniques and “search” models that are in current use. Books abound that cover the subject with a good deal of depth. Rather, we wish to emphasize that when Black people engage in genealogical research they often develop leads to patterns in family living that depart radically from the more familiar nuclear model.

During the days of chattel slavery and for a considerable number of years afterwards, many Black families tended to be of the extended variety. This was so because the sale of slaves separated children from mothers, and husbands from wives. It was com­mon for a slave mother to care for her own as well as the children from other unions. These siblings, in many cases, were destined never to know their real parents; too, the offspring of the slave master and an African woman could be found among them.

This situation set the scene for Clan Formation. The term Clan, as used here, is borrowed from African social and political experience and can be thought of as a grouping of families which provides physical and psychological supports for its members. The African-American Clan, moreover, may contain members who are not “blood relatives.” (The existence of a clan does not entirely depend on the degree of consciousness of its members. Indeed, as is found in genealogical work, many people are unaware of their Clan membership.)


Clan Formation and Implications for Genealogical Research

Some slave children never knew their blood-parents. This was, of course, true for children who were separated from their parents at a very early age. Others, however, who were older when separated, did realize, as one former slave once told me, “There was some­body else who loved me.” Nevertheless, it was the order of things that she would be raised by a surro­gate mother. These families did, however, provide a means of survival for many Black people in the United States. And these “Clans” in some cases grew and encompassed other family groupings.

After the Civil War ended, many former slaves made heroic attempts to find “real” parents, brothers, and sisters. Some were successful and thus new groups were added to the Clan. (It is from this Clan arrangement that the “long-lost cousins” appear, sometime unannounced, at weddings and funerals.)


Possible Implications in Genealogical Research

In light of the forces of social history and the ensuing dynamics outlined above we submit that African-Ameri­cans who start on a genealogical journey, should be aware that somewhere along the road they will “meet the Clan.” We hope that those who find “long-lost cousins” would welcome them back into the fold with all the loving care that was characteristic of that half­-forgotten slave mother who “loved ALL her children.”

Another source for Black genealogy is the federal census, the first of which was taken in 1790, and which is now available through 1900. In the slave schedules, slaves were at that time listed under their masters’ names; later, freedmen were listed as “All Others.”

  • Black participation in wars to maintain freedom is one of the most neglected aspects of American history. Since Blacks have participated from the Revolutionary War to the present, those who are searching genealogical information will find a wealth of information listed at the National Archives in Washington, D. C., as well as at various state historical societies. The War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, has an extensive collection of materials relating to Blacks in the military.
  • Two books by the eminent Black historian, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, entitled Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830 and Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830 provide an excellent source for genealogical pursuit. These volumes list names, sections of country where Blacks lived, and other per­tinent data.
  • From Freedom Journal to the present-day Phila­delphia Tribune, Pittsburgh Courier, the Amsterdam News, and even the Baltimore Afro-American, Black newspapers are still a valuable source of information and impact on this country’s Black citizenry. These pub­lications have always contained obituaries, births, business advertisements, and news of weddings, athletic events, society, and larger social issues of the day. Black newspapers remain the voice of the Black community because they publish information that has questionable significance to white-oriented media and their readers.
  • For those wishing to trace their genealogy in the State of Pennsylvania, a number of resources are available. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company of Philadelphia are two prestigious institutions which have the largest holdings pertaining to the Afro­American experience in this country, Africa, and the West Indies from 1553 to 1920. Of special interest are several sets of valuable and informative papers: those of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, Leon Gardiner (Black bibliophile). the Banneker Institute, and several collections of documents of some of the leading families within the Black community from the 1920’s to the present. The Christian Recorder, organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is housed at these institutions on micro­film. Publication was begun in 1856 and continues. Both institutions also have a good deal of material relating to Camp William Penn, the first training camp in the United States for Black soldiers, which was located in LaMott, Pennsylvania, during the Civil War.
  • Another source of vital data in Philadelphia is the City Archives, which have census reports, directories per­taining to Blacks, and other items of interest. The Free Library on Logan Square is an excellent source of newspapers and books relating to the Black experience.
  • The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania, is an order which has collected information on Blacks and Indians. An outstanding col­lection of books and other memorabilia can be found here.
  • Cheyney State College and Lincoln University both have a long tradition of amassing written materials relating to Blacks. Two Quaker institutions, Swarthmore and Haverford College, also have good collections. Because of the role of Blacks in the Moravian Church, Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has interesting records.
  • In Harrisburg, the State Archives and the State Library have a vast amount of pamphlets, brochures, and books which outline Black history in the State. The Penn­sylvania State University in University Park has collected materials as well, and most of the information relating to early Black newspapers is on microfilm there, as well as materials relating to the Negro Convention Movement in Pennsylvania. The Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh has a vast amount of data pertaining to Blacks in western Penn­sylvania, and the University of Pittsburgh has resources as well.

Because of the historical absence of systematic records and the fact that slaves were forbidden to read or write, Blacks who are tracing their family history must, to a degree, depend on the oral history of living relatives.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has begun to tape and record the life histories of Black senior citizens throughout the State. The oral history of Mrs. Amelia Davis of the Uptown Senior Citizens Center in Harrisburg (part of whose story appeared in the September issue of Pennsylvania Heritage). provides an excellent representation of her family’s roots in the South during the days of slavery, emancipation, and finally the family’s migration to the North. The phenomenal success of recording information from senior citizens has rekindled interest in the holding of family reunions among Blacks and whites and in finding their lost heritage.



Those tracing their genealogy will find it akin to finding and fitting together the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. Indeed, the rewards are many when all the obstacles are overcome, all the missing pieces of information are garnered, and all the pieces begin to fit securely around each other. In my experience, I have found a vast amount of strength in my own Black family – from its arrival to America to this day.


For further reading see, John Blassingame, The Slave Community, and Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom.


James Drew is Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and a professor of physics at Montgomery County Community College. His more than twenty publications include a proposal for the inclusion of Black and ethnic history in public school curricula.


Ed Sims is Director of Student Financial Aids and associate professor of social relations at the same college, and is the author of the Black Family Rituals series and co-author of a new book, Black Nomads in the Urban Centers.