Smithsonian Sparks

How the Smithsonian can help research African American family history

February 17, 2021
Hannah S. Ostroff

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A man and woman sitting on the back of a bench with two little boys and a girl on the front.

Studio family portrait, 1960–1970s, by Rev. Henry Clay Anderson. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Charles Schwartz and Shawn Wilson, © Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture

One afternoon at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a visitor was reading out loud the names of family members he discovered in a historical record. On the other side of the museum’s Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center, another visitor’s ears perked up. She knew those names. She didn’t know the person reading them, but she knew those names. They were also from her family tree.

That day, at a museum that presents 400 years of African American history, two strangers became relatives.

The center opened with the museum in 2016 to help visitors begin their family-history journey and to learn the basics of researching African American genealogy. Through one-on-one sessions and other programs, its genealogy specialists show people how to use online databases and other resources.

All services are free and open to anyone at any stage of their research process—not just scholars or genealogy experts. Before sessions moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, staff met with 10 to 60 people a day in person.

A black and white photograph of a family with a man and woman seated at the center. Six girls and one boy surround them.
Photograph of the Cotten family taken in 1902. The names of the family members have been written on or above their likenesses: Carrie, Mildred, Loula, Elizabeth, Myrtle, Tom, Sallie, Susie, and Ernest. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Families of Anita Williams Christopher and David Owen Williams

The center, located on the second floor, helps visitors understand how their own personal history connects to the broader story they see in the museum galleries.

“It’s a way of making the history and the past tangible for a lot of people,” said Hannah Scruggs, a genealogy reference assistant at the museum.

Seeing family members’ names in historical records can evoke a powerful response from visitors, and many have had emotional reactions to what they learn in the center.

Although researching African American genealogy can be challenging—for example, the U.S. Census did not record enslaved people by name, so the 1870 census was the first to include identifying information on many African Americans—the center works to correct the misconception that there are no records to trace.

A group of women, men and children outside on the grass.
Outdoor family portrait, 1960–1970s, by Rev. Henry Clay Anderson. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Charles Schwartz and Shawn Wilson, © Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture

The staff offers this advice for anyone starting their research:

Start with what you know. Pick the branch of your family you know the most about, because you’ll be more likely to find records and go back farther in time to see how records connect. You may be inclined to start with the gaps in family history, but that can make the process more difficult and frustrating. Talk to your family before you get started to gather as much information as you can before diving in.

Be flexible with spellings, dates, and locations. Don’t count out records that might have a family name with a letter off or a year that doesn’t match with the family memory. Data may have been recorded incorrectly, or details may have shifted when told over multiple generations.

Learn about communities, not just individuals. You can understand quite a bit from researching the context of the period and area where your family lived—whether through church documents or local news bulletins—to offer clues and paint a bigger picture.

Try to get as much information from as many sources as possible. In addition to family-history databases online, you can do research in newspapers, court records, and the Freedmen's Bureau records, which contain details about hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved people as they transitioned to freedom and citizenship after the Civil War. (Volunteers with the Smithsonian Transcription Center are currently working to make these records more accessible and searchable online.) 

Consider print as well as digital. The internet is a powerful tool, but it’s wise to keep paper copies in addition to computer files. Formats might change in the future, and it can be helpful for sharing research across different age groups and technology comfort levels.

Explore free options for research. Ask your public library what resources are available—many now have options you can access from home.

Don’t get discouraged. “Come with a very open mind as to what you might see,” said Lisa Crawley, genealogy reference assistant for the center.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the center has moved to virtual appointments. It also does outreach with organizations and community groups and hosts monthly public programs online. You don’t have to be in Washington, D.C., to participate, and the staff has seen an increase in attendance from across the country.

To schedule a virtual research session or find out about upcoming online programs, email [email protected].

The center’s new digital exhibition “Pauli Murray’s Proud Shoes: A Classic in African American Genealogy” explores the family history of Pauli Murray, a pioneering lawyer, activist, writer and priest.

A man and two girls are seated in a living room. He is speaking to them.
 Ira Tucker speaks with his daughters, Sundray and Lynda, in a photo by K. Bryson Photography. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from Ira Tucker, Jr. of the Dixie Hummingbirds