Census Records in African American Research
| African American Research
This article is part of a series.
|Overview of African American Research|
|Compiled Sources in African American Research|
|Census Records in African American Research|
|Military Records in African American Research|
|Freedman's Savings and Trust Company|
|Researching Free Blacks|
|List of Useful Resources for African American Research|
African Americans were enumerated by name in federal census population schedules along with other U.S. residents from 1870 to the present. Most researchers will be able to locate African Americans using the same methodology practiced by other genealogists. However, many African Americans are difficult to find in the 1870 census, which is the first census after emancipation. For clues to locating persons in this first post-Civil War federal enumeration, see Tony Burroughs’s “Finding African Americans on the 1870 Census,” in Heritage Quest Magazine.
Prior to 1870, free African Americans were enumerated by name, but enslaved African Americans were listed unnamed, under the names of owners. In 1850 and 1860, slaves were consigned to special, far less informative, slave population schedules, in which the only personal information recorded was age, gender, and racial identity (either black or mulatto). Names were noted on slaves one hundred years old or more; these, however, represent less than 1 percent of the enslaved population. In a few rare instances, the names of all slaves were included on the slave population schedules (see the 1860 censuses of Hampshire County, Virginia and St. Louis, Missouri; and the 1850 census of Bowie County, Texas.)
The slave schedules themselves do not provide conclusive evidence for the presence of a specific slave in the household or plantation of a particular slave owner. Many researchers search a slave schedule for a surname that is the same name as their ancestor’s. They then assume the person is the former slave owner and try to match up the ages. This is not a recommended procedure. You must first prove a person is your ancestor and not just someone with the same name.
Furthermore, persons listed as slaves are not clearly identified, and the ages given on schedules are notoriously inaccurate. Finally, many of the names on slave schedules that are indicated to be slave owners are not in fact owners at all. Census enumerators were instructed to record where slaves were residing, even if they were not living with their legal owners. In some communities, as many as 30 percent of slaves were rented and thus appear in households or groups other than their usual place of residence.
Prior to 1850 there were no special slave schedules taken during the federal enumerations. Instead, slave data was recorded as part of the general population schedules. In these decades, only the heads of free households were enumerated by name.
- Tony Burroughs, "Finding African Americans on the 1870 Census," Heritage Quest Magazine 91 (January/February 2001):50-56.
- Carmen R. Donne, Federal Census Schedules, 1850-80: Primary Sources of Historical Research, Reference Information Paper No. 67 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 1973), 12.