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Family History and Genealogy: African American Genealogy

African American Genealogy

Photo: "6th Grade Class 1948 Avery Institute" from the Avery Normal Institute (Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston)

Genealogy Guides

City Directories

City directories were published intermittently in Charleston starting in 1782. Only after the Civil War were they produced on an annual basis. Free persons of color were occasionally listed in the directories beginning about 1800. The 1822 City Directory was the first to include separate lists of white and “coloured” residents. Ask for assistance to locate. Some directories on microfilm.

Manuscript Collections

A number of manuscript collections at the South Carolina Historical Society contain information about African Americans. Search under specific family, church, or organizational names. The Society also holds the records of many local churches. Churches often recorded births, deaths, and marriages for “colored” as well as white members. Also search under the subject headings “African Americans,” “Slaves,” “Slavery,” and “Slave records.”


Local newspapers often ran advertisements for the sale of slaves. The ESCN Database Reports Series Index (070 .E28) lists slaves names mentioned in S.C. newspapers for the years 1732-1775. Please for assistance to locate the newspapers.

Birth/Death Records (City of Charleston only)

This series consists of 15 microfilm reels of the birth and death records kept by the Board of Health for the City of Charleston. The series is arranged roughly chronologically (death records series first, then births), sometimes listing names alphabetically within a given year or range of years. The organization of each volume varies and is sometimes confusing.

Reel 7 contains an Index to the Register of Deaths, 1850-1912

The original volumes were apparently transferred from the City of Charleston to the Charleston County Health Department, then from there to the Charleston County Library, and finally from the library to the Charleston County Records Center, where they were microfilmed in 1988.

SC Historical Society microfilm: 45/326

  • Reel 01: Return of Interments in the City of Charleston, Jan. 28, 1821–Sept. 22, 1832 (includes both white and colored deaths)
  • Reel 02: Return of Deaths in the City of Charleston, Sept. 22, 1832–June 10, 1854 (lists names, place of interment, sex, color, condition, age, place of birth, disease, physician, and sometimes occupation)
  • Reel 03: Return of Deaths in the City of Charleston, June 11, 1854–Sept. 18, 1870
  • Reel 04: Return of Deaths within the City of Charleston, July 11, 1880–Dec. 1906 (lists name, sex, color, cause of death, place of residence, place born, physician, and place of burial)
  • Reel 06: Return of Deaths (Colored), Jan. 1, 1907–May 18, 1926 (names are arranged alphabetically within ranges of years)
  • Reel 07: Index to Register of Deaths, 1850–1912 (arranged roughly alphabetically within each year); Record of Black and Colored Interments, Jan. 1, 1889–Oct. 31, 1911
  • Reel 09: Record of Colored Births in the City of Charleston, Dec. 4, 1877–Jan. 24, 1881 (arranged alphabetically)
  • Reel 10: Return of Births in the City of Charleston, Nov. 1877–Feb. 2, 1884)
  • Reel 11: Return of Births in the City of Charleston, March 1, 1884–Oct. 29, 1893
  • Reel 14: Return of Colored Births in the City of Charleston, Nov. 1, 1893–July 1918 (lists name, date of birth, physician or midwife, sex, birthplace, parents' names, parents' birthplaces, and sometimes the occupation of the father)
  • Reel 15: Return of Colored Births in the City of Charleston, Jan. 1919–Dec. 1926

Other Repositories

Slave Lists

A number of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century estate settlements include a list of slaves among the descriptions of the property in question. These lists, which frequently mention names, ages, and familial relationships, may be useful in researching family history. A published list of manuscript collections that include slave lists is available.

Freedman’s Bank Records [CD-Rom]

Congress chartered the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company in 1865 to benefit ex-slaves. After former slaves deposited more than $57 million in the bank, it collapsed because of mismanagement and outright fraud, devastating the African American community. In an effort to establish bank patrons’ identities, bank workers at the time recorded the names and family relationships of account holders, sometimes taking brief oral histories. In the process they created the largest single repository (480,000 names) of lineage-linked African American records known to exist. Please ask for assistance to view the CD.

Wills and Probate Records

The ownership of slaves was transferred from one generation to the next in wills. The names of slaves are mentioned in these documents. The SCHS library contains several books of will abstracts (929.32). SCHS also has will transcripts by county (1782-1868) on microfilm (45/294–See below for list of microfilmed will transcripts). Many wills at the SC Dept. of Archives and History can be found online by clicking here. ‘Wills’ can also be searched as a subject in the SCHS online catalog.

South Carolina Will Transcripts (by County), 1782-1868 (S.C. Historical Society microfilm: 45/294)

  • Roll 01: Index to Will Books
  • Roll 02: Wills of Abbeville County, Vol. 1, 1787-1815
  • Roll 03: Wills of Abbeville County, Vol. 2, 1815-1839; Vol. 3, 1839-1855
  • Roll 04: Wills of Anderson County, Vol. 1, 1791-1834; Vol. 2, 1835-1857
  • Roll 05: Wills of Barnwell County, Vol. 1, 1787-1826; Vol. 2, 1826-1856
  • Roll 06: Wills of Chester County, Vol. 1, 1789-1817; Vol. 2, 1817-1839
  • Roll 07: Wills of Chester County, Vol. 3, 1833-1853; Wills of Darlington County, Vols. 1 & 2, 1785-1853
  • Roll 08: Wills of Edgefield County, Vol. 1, Book A, pp. 1-409; Vol. 2, Book A, pp. 410-804, 1785-1818
  • Roll 09: Wills of Edgefield County, Vols. 1 & 2, Book C, 1817-1835
  • Roll 10: Wills of Edgefield County, Vols. 1 & 2, Book D, 1836-1853
  • Roll 11: Wills of Fairfield County, Vol. 1, 1787-1819; Vol. 2, 1820-1839
  • Roll 12: Wills of Fairfield County, Vol. 3, 1840-1857
  • Roll 13: Wills of Greenville County, Vols. 1 & 2, 1787-1853
  • Roll 14: Wills of Horry County, Vol. 1, 1799-1853; Wills of Kershaw County, Vol. 1, 1770-1841
  • Roll 15: Wills of Kershaw County, Vol. 2, 1775-1879; Vol. 3, 1823-1853
  • Roll 16: Wills of Laurens County, Vol. 1, 1766-1825
  • Roll 17: Wills of Laurens County, Vol. 2, 1825-1853; Wills of Marion County, Vol. 1, 1796-1855
  • Roll 18: Wills of Marlboro County, Vol. 1, 1787-1853; Wills of Newberry County, Vol. 1, 1776-1814
  • Roll 19: Wills of Newberry County, Vol. 2, 1805-1826; Vol. 3, 1823-1860
  • Roll 20: Wills of Newberry County, Vol. 4, 1840-1858
  • Roll 21: Wills of Pickens County, Vol. 1, 1828-1862; Wills of Richland County, Vol. 1, 1787-1853
  • Roll 22: Wills of Richland County, Vol. 2, 1787-1853
  • Roll 23: Wills of Richland County, Vol. 3, 1787-1853; Vol. 4, 1854-1864
  • Roll 24: Wills of Spartanburg County, Vol. 1, 1787-1820; Vol. 2, 1830-1835; Vol. 3, 1840-1858
  • Roll 25: Wills of Sumpter County, Vol. 1, 1774-1849
  • Roll 26: Wills of Sumter County, Vol. 2, 1823-1853
  • Roll 27: Wills of Union County, Vol. 1, 1777-1814; Vol. 2, 1815-1849
  • Roll 28: Wills of Williamsburg County, Vol. 1, 1802-1853
  • Roll 29: Wills of York County, Vol. 1, 1770-1815
  • Roll 30: Wills of York County, Vol. 2, 1816-1839
  • Roll 31: Wills of York County, Vol. 3, 1840-1853


Online Resources

Capitation Tax Records

Prior to emancipation, free persons of color in the city of Charleston were required to pay an annual “capitation tax.” These microfilm rolls include the following information for free African Americans: name, residence, age, occupation, real estate, stocks and goods, interest of bonds, slaves, income, amount of commissions, horses and mules, capitation amounts (based on gender and age), amount of taxes paid, and other miscellaneous data.

Vertical Files

The South Carolina Historical Society’s vertical files contain miscellaneous documents such as newspaper clippings, research notes, and correspondence. Files cover a wide variety of subjects including family surnames, localities, churches, cemeteries, and miscellaneous topics. A subject guide to the files is available in the catalog room. Please ask for assistance to view the vertical files.

Published Resources (selected)