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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)

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. 


Local newspapers often advertised public auctions and sales that involved the sale of enslaved people as commodities. The ESCN Database Reports Series Index lists names of enslaved people mentioned in South Carolina 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

Freedman’s Bank Records

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. 

Vertical Files

Typically, when researchers come to learn more about a topic, one of the first places to look is in the vertical file collections. Vertical files are materials, often ephemeral in nature, such as newspaper clippings, press releases, brochures, notes, reports, and other miscellaneous information objects that are collected and arranged by address, last name, or subject for ready reference.   

Architectural and property vertical files files are arranged by street address and include newspaper clippings, photographs, research notes, and other miscellaneous information.  If the property is (or was at one time) a plantation, check the SC Historical Society’s subject vertical file guide under the Plantations heading. Special Collections maintains vertical files on College of Charleston owned properties (see inventory below).

You might also find our biographical and genealogical vertical files helpful for locating more information about an individual or family. Genealogy vertical files may contain newspaper clippings, lineage charts, obituaries, and research notes of other genealogists. Ask for assistance to locate or search online catalog using keywords (ex. “Smith family”)

Please ask librarian or archivist on duty for assistance in accessing these resources or email

Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture

Man_Half-tube/Getty Images

Names of Enslaved People in Manuscript Collections

A number of manuscript collections in the holdings of Special Collections and the South Carolina Historical Society contain information about African American citizens. Use the catalog to search specific family, church, or organization names. We also hold records of many local churches. Churches often recorded births, deaths, and marriages for “colored” as well as white members. A number of eighteenth and nineteenth century manuscript collections also include lists of enslaved persons in wills, estates, distribution lists, and ledgers. 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 names of enslaved people in the manuscript collections is available.

Published Resources (selected)

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.

Wills and Probate Records

Enslaved people, considered property, were transferred from one generation to the next in wills. The names of enslaved people are often mentioned in these documents. Special Collections and the South Carolina Historical Society Archive contain several books of will abstracts. 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 South Carolina Department of Archives and History can be found online by clicking here

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