Black Genealogy in Virginia

Slave Records

To find information on an enslaved individual, the owner must be identified. References to enslaved individuals are most often found in the records of the slaveholder. A former slave’s surname may be a hint because some former slaves took the surname of their former owner. Other former slaves had a surname while still enslaved, took the name of a previous owner, or simply chose a name. Some surnames changed between the end of slavery and 1870.

If an individual was born a slave between 1853 and 1865, he or she may be listed in Bureau of Vital Statistics birth records along with the name of the individual’s owner and mother. These records are indexed by the name of the owner, but the registers themselves may be reviewed if one knows the locality and approximate date that the individual was born. If a slave died between 1853 and 1865, he or she may be included in the Bureau of Vital Statistics death records, along with the name of his or her owner. There is no statewide index to these records.

Eagle Tavern Broadside showing sale of slaves
Eagle Tavern Broadside showing sale of slaves

The 1850 and 1860 slave schedules that are a part of the federal census provide the names of slaveholders in a locality and the age, sex, and color of slaves. Looking for slaveholders who lived near to where a formerly enslaved person lived in 1870, or slaveholders who owned slaves whose descriptions match those of the individuals for whom you are searching, may provide clues as to who the former slaveholder was.

Once the name of the slave owner is determined, search his or her records, including the 1850 and 1860 federal census slave schedules, deeds and wills (for names, ages, owners, and possible emancipations), personal property tax records (for numbers of slaves), personal papers that may include lists of slaves and other information about them, church registers, and court order and minute books for cases that may involve slaves.

Some slaves bought or were given their freedom. References to a slave obtaining his or her freedom may be found in a variety of records. Will books may include wills that state an owner’s intent to free slaves after he or she died. Deed books may contain deeds of manumission. Court order or minute books and judgments may include freedom suits (court cases in which an enslaved person sued for his or her freedom).

Black Genealogy Records

Post Civil War Research

In the decades after the Civil War, African Americans appear in almost any record imaginable, including census, tax, military, and vital records, as well as county and city court records. African Americans also began to publish newspapers and to create more of their own organizations, churches, and cemeteries. Individuals’ names may appear in these records as well.

Please use the state and county pages to search for black genealogy after the Civil war as most official records were no longer separate.


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