For Beginners

Holtsville School in TN

If you’re new to genealogy research, congratulations! You are about to undertake a long (yes it will be long) but fulfilling and fascinating journey down your family’s roots and branches. To take on the responsibility of tracing and recording your family history  is a serious and meaningful endeavor. Your efforts are valuable, and we’d like to share just a few tips for beginners (in no particular order), as well as a few web resources to get you started.

1) Read. The best thing you could do is to start reading some of the beginning genealogy books. This is a good way to start to start understanding the key activities and search methodologies, and not to waste valuable time later. I highly recommned you start with: “Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree” by Tony Burroughs. There are others you can move on to (listed in our bibliography) once you have mastered these concepts.

2) Join a local genealogy group. The value of belonging to a local genealogy group cannot be underestimated. You will be inspired and have a group of people to support you and help you navigate the genealogy waters. Some genealogy groups like CM AAHGS will provide mentors to help guide you through the research process and help you when you hit a brick wall. If you live near the Columbia, MD area, we hope you’ll join us, but there are many other good local groups. The group does not have to be in the same area you are researching! It should be somewhere local to where you live so you can attend meetings on a regular meeting.

3) Interview your Family. As the book “Black Roots” will explain, the very first step is to interview your family members (i.e., gather oral history) so you can have information to start researching with. The eldest people in your family are ideal, but there may be others who can provide insight. You want to focus on names and places. There are many websites that can provide example oral history questions, for example’s list or Dick Eastman’s list. A Google search on “oral history interviews” will pull up not only more questions, but other guidelines about conducting the interviews. Do not wait to see a relative in person!!! Get on the phone and do the interview as soon as possible. Every genealogist can tell you a story about putting off talking to a relative who died before we got a chance to do it. And don’t neglect to collect family memorabilia–every family has boxes with old church or school programs, old ID cards, all sorts of stuff that will help your research.

4) Reach out to Learn. Other than reading a joining a local group, take advantage of all of the other opportunities there are to learn: take free classes in your area, the non-credit genealogy courses at a local community college, subscribe and read some of the good genealogy blogs online, and consider attending at least one major genealogy conference a year if possible. All of these will help you to grow your skills in ways that will enrich your research. Also, sign up for Tim Pinnick’s two excellent free e-zines, The Black Genealogist and Black Newspaper Notes.

5) Go Slowly. One last tip–as much as the timeframe of slavery beckons, it would be a mistake to try to jump back too fast and dive into that topic. Slave research is complex, and you will have a much better chance of success if you give yourself time to grow as a genealogist. You should start with yourself and research back in time, one generation at a time, slowly. You will research all siblings (not just your direct ancestors) in every generation. Doing this correctly from the beginning will help you (again) to not have to waste precious time redoing research. There are plenty of exciting events in your ancestor’s lives in the 20th century.

Here is a list of links to other articles and websites on beginning genealogy research. Stay motivated and Good luck!!

Cyndi’s List Guide to Beginning Links
NEHGS: A Guide to African-American Research
Afrigeneas’ Online Guide to Beginning African-American Genealogy
Angela Walton-Raji’s Beginning Genealogist Website


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