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How to Begin Your Research
Genealogy as a hobby can be very rewarding, but, like any other hobby, can be overwhelming if you don’t know how to get started. There are three easy steps to starting your family history. The first step is to start with yourself and work backwards. Write down names, dates and geographic locations of family members that you know. Once you write down what you know, you can move on to step two, asking family and relatives about what they know about your family history. This is a wonderful way to confirm birth, marriage and death dates and learn more about your family’s history. Finally, the third step is to use vital records (birth, marriage and death certificates or obituaries) and reference resources like the many contained in this pathfinder to fill in gaps and link family members over time and geography.
It is important to keep an open mind when doing your family history. Last names changed spelling and pronunciation over time, so look for all possible variations on your family surname. You may find some information that you had not expected to find initially, or you may find some family members harder to track than others. Still, it is rewarding to discover your heritage and get a sense of the strong family roots that you come from. For further information on how to get started in genealogy, consult Instructional Guides on African American Genealogy listed on page two.
Using Keywords to Search for Resources
There are four ways to search for information in the Virginia Room: using the online catalog, card catalog, finding aids and, last but not least, your librarian! Each of these steps is equally important because each search tool will lead you to completely different resources. The best way to get started searching all of the finding tools is to think about the keywords that you will use in your search.
Asking yourself the following questions about your research topic will help you develop a list of keywords to connect you with the information you seek:
What subject am I searching?
Think about all the terms that can be used for the subject that you are researching. For instance, if you are doing research on African American research, the search terms blacks, black, African American, Negro, Negroes, slave, slaves, colored or free person in the online catalog will lead you to completely different resources, all of which contain valuable information.
What is the last name of the family I am researching?
Write down every variation on the spelling of the last name you are researching (Smith, Smyth, Smythe) because chances are you will see it spelled more than one way.
What geographic location am I looking in?
Knowing geographic location is key to successful genealogical research because you need to know where to search for records on your family. Keep in mind that county and state boundary lines changed over time, so if you stop seeing your family in a certain county, check maps to see if the boundary lines have changed. (Greenbrier,VA records became Greenbrier, WV records in 1863 when West Virginia was formed.)
What time period am I looking for information?
Time is important when doing genealogical research because locations changed over time and people moved over time. When doing African American research, time plays an even more important roll because it changes the way you look for family records. Pre-Civil War records require more creativity than post Civil War records because slaves were not listed on the census until 1870. (A good resource to use when researching slaves before the civil war is wills; slaves were often listed by name in their owners wills so that they could be tracked as property.)
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How to do African American Research
The purpose of this guide is to provide an introduction on how to do African American history and genealogy research using Virginia Room resources. Although this list only contains titles relating to African American history and genealogy in Virginia, the Virginia Room contains many more resources on African American Genealogy for other states. Please see the online catalog for those titles. Section one of the pathfinder gives tips on how to get started with your research. Section two is a list of resources available in the Virginia Room. Section three is a list of websites on African American history and genealogy available on the Internet.
Bibliography of Virginia Room Resources:
Journals and Newspapers
The following journals are available in the Virginia Room. In addition to the journals listed below that specialize in African American history and genealogy, it is important to look at the county journals and newsletters that are published by local historical and genealogical societies.
See the Virginia Room Brochure for a complete list of Virginia Room newspaper holdings.
Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society
. Washington D.C.: Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. Vol.1 (2002) – current issue available in the Virginia Room.
. Washington D.C.: The Society. January-February 2002- current issue available in the Virginia Room.
Roanoke Tribune. 1999 – Present.
Franklin County Afro-American Community News, 1909-1950
. 2 Volumes. V REF 975.568 H326F
There are hundreds of resources available in the Virginia Room for research on African American family history. This guide contains some of these resources. Please check the catalog for sources on African American history in other states and for individual family histories. Titles are available through the online catalog at www.rvl.info.
Instructional Guides on African American Genealogy:
Begley, Paul R.
African American Genealogical Research
. V REF 929.096073 SG83S
Witcher, Curt Bryan.
African American Genealogy: a Bibliography and Guide to Sources.
V REF 929.096073W 77LA
Walker, James D.
Black Genealogy: How to Begin
. V REF 929.096073 W152b
Rose, James M.
Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African-American Genealogy.
V REF 929.096073 R72B
Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African American Genealogy and Historical Identity.
V REF 929.096073 E868F
Guide to Tracing Your African Ameripean Civil War Ancestor
. V REF 929.096073 B739G
Streets, David H. Slave Genealogy: a Research Guide with Case Studies. V REF 929.09 ST83S
County Registers of Free Blacks:
Please ask the Virginia Room Librarian for Registers of Free Negroes in Virginia from counties not listed below.
Cassell, R. Vaughn.
1850 census of Tazewell County, Virginia: Free Schedule, slave schedule, Mortality Schedule, Industry Schedule
V REF 929.3755 T219C 1850
Duncan, Patricia B.
Abstracts of Loudoun County, Virginia. Register of Free Negroes, 1844-1861
. V REF 929.3755 L926F
Provine, Dorothy S.
Alexandria County, Virginia: Free Negro Registers, 1797-1861.
V REF 929.3755AL27R
Entitled! : Free Papers in Appalachia Concerning Antebellum Freeborn Negroes and Emancipated Blacks of Montgomery County, Virginia.
V REF 929.3755 M766F
Ibrahim, Karen King.
Fauquier County, Virginia Register of Free Negroes, 1817-1865.
V REF 929.3755 F274RG
Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia, 1790-1860: the Darker Side of Freedom.
V REF 975.5521 B634F
Lancaster County, Virginia, Register of Free Negroes, 1803-1860.
V REF 929.3755 L22LRE
Griffith, Alva H.
Pittsylvania County, Virginia, Register of Free Negroes and Related Documentation.
V REF 929.3755 P687RE
Boyd-Rush, Dorothy A.
Register of Free Blacks, Rockingham County, Virginia, 1807-1859.
V REF 929.3755 R591F
Wynne, Frances Holloway.
Register of Free Negroes and also of Dower Slaves, Brunswick County, Virginia, 1803-1850
. V REF 939.3755 B838R
The Register of Free Negroes, Northampton County, Virginia, 1853-1861.
V REF 929.3755 N812R
Bushman, Katherine Gentry.
The Registers of Free Blacks, 1810-1864, Augusta County, Virginia and Staunton, Virginia.
V REF 929.3755 AU45F
Fairfax County, Virginia County Court.
Registrations of Free Negroes Commencing September Court 1822
, Book No. 2, and
Register of Free Blacks 1835
, Book 3:
Being the Full Text of the Two Extant Volumes, 1822-1861, of Registrations of Free Blacks now in the County Courthouse, Fairfax, Virginia
. V REF 929.3755 F161F
Strangers in their Midst: the Free Black Population of Amherst County, Virginia.
V REF 929.3755 AM47A
Surry County, Virginia Register of Free Negroes.
V REF 929.3755 SU 78S
African American Bibliography Sources:
Afro-American Sources in Virginia: a Guide to Manuscripts.
V REF 016.9755 P741A
National Archives and Records Service. Black Studies: a Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications.
V REF 016.97304 UN3B
Virginia Historical Society.
Guide to African-American Manuscripts in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society
. V REF 016.9755 V819K
Howe, Mentor A. and Roscoe Lewis.
The Classified Catalogue of the Negro Collection in the Collis P. Huntington Library Hampton Institute.
REF 016.3252 H189C
Resources on Slavery:
Advertisements for Runaway Slaves in Virginia, 1801-1820
. V REF 929.3755 M461A
Don’t Carry Me Back! : Narratives by Former Virginia Slaves.
V REF 306.362 D719
Hopkins, Margaret Lail.
Index to the Tithables of Loudoun County, Virginia: and to Slaveholders and Slaves, 1758-1786
. V REF 929.3755 L926X
We Lived in a Little Cabin in the Yard.
V REF 306.362 W37
Purdue, Charles, Thomas Barden and Robert Phillips.
Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves.
V REF 326.9755 W419w
Morgan, Lynda J.
Emancipation in Virginia’s Tobacco Belt, 1850-1870.
V REF 975.504 M823E
African American History in Virginia:
Our Colored People
. Ask Librarian for assistance.
Caldwell, Arthur Bunyan.
History of American Negro: Virginia Edition.
V REF SC 920.0755 C127H
The Roanoke Valley’s African American Heritage: A Pictorial History
. V REF 975.5791 SH23R
Directory of Negro Businesses in Virginia.
V REF 658.058 H18
African American History in Roanoke City: a Compilation of Records.
V REF 975.5791 OL4A
Black History in Southwest Virginia, 1790 to 1900.
V REF 975.57 K459B
Puckett, Newbell Niles.
Black Names in America: Origins and Usage.
V REF 929.4 P961B
Fitzgerald, Ruth Coder.
A Different Story: A Black History of Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania, Virginia.
V REF 975.5365 F576D
A History of African-Americans in Middlesex County, 1646-1992.
V REF 975.533 B634H
Jackson, Luther Porter.
Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865-1895
. V REF SC 325.26 J13N
Childs, Benjamin Guy.
The Negroes of Lynchburg, Virginia
. V REF P 325.26 C436N
Chubb-Hale, V. Mignon.
Outstanding Blacks in Roanoke, Past and Present.
V REF 920.0755 C470
Radford’s Early Black Residents, 1880-1925
. V REF 929.3755 M767C
Craven, Wesley Frank.
White, Red and Black: the Seventeenth-Century Virginian.
V REF 301.45 C855W
Schaeffer, Charles S.
Freedmen’s Bureau: the Reports of Charles S. Schaeffer from the Virginia Counties of Montgomery and Pulaski, with Additional Information on the Counties of Floyd, Giles, Craig, Wythe, and Roanoke: 1866-1868.
V REF 975.5785 SCH13F
Special Collections, Microfilm Materials:
The following list of resources are primary resources, many of which are unique to the Virginia Room Collection. Please ask for assistance when retrieving these materials.
Bureau of Vital Statistics. Birth Index, Reel 1A, Old Slaves Index, 1853-1866. (Microfilm)
United States Federal Census. 1850, 1860. (Lists all free people, including free blacks, Native American, etc. Microfilm.)
United States Federal Census. 1870-1930. (Every United States Citizen is listed. Microfilm.)
Slave Schedules, 1850 & 1860. (Organized by owner’s surname and lists the number of slaves owned as property. Slaves are not listed by name. Microfilm.)
Vertical Files and Surname Files:
The following list contains a brief sample of files available in the Virginia Room that relate to African American history and genealogy. Files consist of newsclippings, ephemera and family history research that has been donated to the Virginia Room. Materials located in the vertical and surname files are indexed in the card catalog.
Railroad-Norfolk & Western-Dining Car Employees, 1906-1957
Orgs.-Gray Eagle Furnace Company-1864 Employee Register (Wytheville, Va)
VA-Washington County-Black History Center of Southwestern Virginia
VA-Roanoke-Black History-Virginia Y. Lee Afro-American Collection
VA-Roanoke-Black History Week
Index to Register of Free Negroes in Virginia.
Black Pages Telephone Directory.
The following list of websites provides access to information on African American history and genealogy through the Internet. The websites encompass national, state and local resources. These sites are available from any computer with Internet access unless otherwise stated.
Ancestry Library Edition. An online resource available at any Roanoke Public Libraries branch. Provides access to census records, passenger and immigration lists and much more.
Heritage Quest. Available from any computer with Internet access. Provides access to the census records, PERSI, Revolutionary War records, and some journals.
AAGSNC Genealogical Resources Dictionary
African American Cemeteries Online
African American Genealogical Links
Freedmen’s Bureau Online
Lest We Forget Genealogy Page
African Americans in Virginia
National Archives, Black Family Research
National Park Service Register of Historical African American Places
Geography of Slavery in Virginia
NY Public Library. Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery
African American Genealogy Records
AfriGeneas: African Ancestored Genealogy
Register of Free Blacks, Augusta County, VA
International Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry
Race and Slavery Petitions Project
Runaway Slave Advertisements from 18th Century Virginia Newspapers
United States Colored Troops Institute for Local History and Family Research
PBS, African American World
Volunteers for Freedom: Black Civil War Soldiers buried in Alexandria National Cemetery
Journey Into Your Past, African American Genealogy at the Library of Congress:
African American Cemeteries in Albemarle County, VA
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How to do House History Research
The following is a brief guide to researching your property using resources from the Virginia Room, City of Roanoke and the Internet.
Do not limit your research to looking for information on an address. Every building has a history. Who built the structure? Did a well known family live in the house? What was its function? Was it a business? Did the building have a name? The answers to these questions may lead you to information about a structure.
Virginia Room Resources:
Roanoke city directories 1888-present. Salem is included from 1923.
Roanoke/Salem city phone books 1916-present.
Virginia Business Directories Several volumes from 1880s-1910s.
Photographs Underwood Aerial Photographs, 1924; Davis Photographic records, 1904-1968. See Guide to Virginia Room Photographs.
Vertical Files, primarily newspaper clippings files, contain information on a multitude of Roanoke and Virginia topics. Look for headings such as “Neighborhoods”, “Streets”, “Architecture” and “Businesses”.
Local History File. This is an index of historical information about people, places and events found within books and articles held in the Virginia Room.
Surname File. This index includes hundreds of surname and biographical files.
Biographical Index. Index to Virginia Room resources that contain biographical information on Virginians.
Postcard Collection. Primarily Roanoke, but also other Virginia locations.
Books and pamphlets See online catalog.
Click on “Advanced Search”. Scroll down and “Limit to” “Virginia Room”.
Useful subject headings for online catalog searches include:
Court records—Roanoke County
Roanoke (Va.)—Buildings, structures, etc.
Roanoke (Va.)—History—Pictorial works.
Search for specific family names, i.e. Jones family, Williamson family.
Maps and Gazetteers
See Guide to Virginia Room Maps.
Sanborn Insurance Maps. Various years for Roanoke, Salem and Rocky Mount in the Virginia Room on microfilm and/or hardcopy 1889-1948. Also online and accessible with your Roanoke Valley Library card number
Scroll down to Digital Sanborn Maps link.
Brief list of titles held by the Virginia Room
V REF 724.9 H726R
If these walls could talk: An easy guide to tracking your house’s genealogy.
V REF 728.37 H812I
House Histories: a Guide to Tracing the Genealogy of Your Home
. V REF 917.55 L626H
Roanoke City Planning Commission.
Highland Park Neighborhood: Prospects for the future.
V REF P 361.40755791 R531H C1
VA Department of Historic Resources.
Historic Architectural Survey of the Belmont Neighborhood, Roanoke, VA
. V REF 720.9755792 H55H
Wells, John E. and Robert W. Dalton.
The Virginia Architects: 1835-1955
. V REF 927.2 W462V
Whitwell, W.L. and Lee Windborne.
The Architectural Heritage of the Roanoke Valley.
V REF 720.9755792 W619A
Roanoke City and Internet Resources
City of Roanoke/GIS
This site provides public access to real estate assessment and mapping information. You can view, create, and print maps, and search and view tax parcel data.
Office of the Commissioner of Revenue
Land Cards listing names and dates. They offer a concise record of land transfers including claims or changes to the deed. 540-853-2523. Also available online through City of Roanoke GIS, available at
Real Estate Valuation. GIS shows the date the property was built, but there may be additional information. 540-853-2771.
At the Courthouse, Clerk of Circuit Courts. Look at deeds, wills, plats and maps. 540-853-6702. See the Virginia Room for abstracts of early court records for many VA counties.
How to Research Your Historic Virginia Property
This is a comprehensive 20 page research guide. This excellent guide will direct you to more than 100 sources for information about your historic property.
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