If you’ve been watching Henry Louis Gates’ “Finding Your Roots” on PBS or NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” then you know that genealogy is becoming an increasingly popular hobby and that discovering hidden family stories can be powerful and life-changing.

This can be especially so for African Americans who are often left out of history lessons and formal tales of great men and women. Genealogical research brings history to life and puts our ancestors squarely in the action. Maybe you saw Red Tails, but what do you know about your family members who served in World War II? Our real stories are so much more interesting than Hollywood’s fictionalized accounts of American history. Plus, learning about the real triumphs and challenges that faced your ancestors can be an antidote to a race-biased media and a way to instill pride in future generations.

It is easier than you imagine to begin researching your own family history. Here are some tips to get you started:

Understand how black family research is different.
In many ways, all family research is alike. All genealogists scour records, conduct interviews and document research (At least all good researchers do!). But because of the unique history of black people in America, which includes hundreds of years of slavery and many more of institutional racism, African American genealogy is also unique.  A black family researcher may find that his ancestors’ vital records were housed or indexed separately from those of the white community. In addition, descendants of enslaved Africans must approach their ancestors as property prior to 1865. That means researching bills of sale, wills, land deeds and other records documenting the property of the families that owned them.

Talk to your family. 
Before you log on to a genealogy research site or head to the library, talk to your family, especially the elders. They can give you valuable information on who begat whom and other details that can help you complete a rudimentary family tree and family group sheets.  They are also often eager to share family photos and long hidden documents. It is often said within the genealogical community that any time an elder dies, a library dies along with her. Don’t miss an opportunity to spend quality time with older family and to capture family data that could easily slip away. Consider recording or filming conversations.

Don’t believe what your family tells you. Gather documents.
Family lore is not always reliable. Memories fade. Stories are passed on through time, and like a game of telephone, crucial details become hazy. Families often concoct stories to hide embarrassing or painful incidents, including things we would find unremarkable today. A real genealogist supports information with documents.

At the very least, you will need to document the birth, marriage and death of your ancestors, both direct (grandparents, great-grandparents) and collateral (great uncles and aunts), through 1870. To really tell your ancestors’ stories, you need to gather every record you can, including social security applications, school records, military records, pension forms, land documents, family bibles, family papers, etc.

Work backwards in time. Do not skip generations. Work from known information about already-identified family through to their ancestors.

Record your sources and your work. Once you become immersed in research–and believe me, it’s addictive–you may touch mountains of documents and books, and conduct a slew of web searches and calls to local archivists. Avoid spinning your wheels and losing track of where you found what. Use forms readily available online or genealogy software to record your research efforts and sources.

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  • I actually bought an ancestry book to record family info some time last year or whenever it was when Spike Lee traced his roots. It is a fun hobby, but it is also very important to me. I don’t want my children or their children to have as many unanswered questions about our history as I had.

    It’s also fun doing family interviews and hearing all the funny stories. Other family members get excited about it as well.

  • Toppin (Formerly Known As Just Sayin’)

    I love genealogy too….so much so that I made it apart of my private investigation business. Good money and tons of fun!

  • apple

    my uncle researched our family history, then he found someone was related to, he agreed to meet with him, they were white! boy were they both shocked.

  • Whatever

    Great Article, thanks for the info. I’ve been trying to gather info for years. My family is from the West Indies so it’s a bit harder. If anyone has any information on genealogy for folks in the Islands please post, Thanks!

  • Lora

    If anyone can afford it a DNA test can tell you a lot about your family. I didn’t realize I was a quarter South Asian/Romani until I got one. It’s amazing how family members will hide something from you.

    • Lora, DNA testing is fun. Just a word of caution, those autosomal tests that you mention may give a hint as to your racial makeup, but don’t really help with genealogy. Folks interested in uncovering their family story need to do research, then DNA tests can put icing on the cake.

      It’s also important to understand DNA results. For instance, two sibling may have very different racial percentages in autosomal tests, which don’t test the percentage of, say, European ancestry in your family, but in your particular genetic makeup. Also, Native American ancestry often presents as Asian.