Frequently used terms in Black Family History research

published on 03 July 2022

Below find a detailed list of commonly used terms and phrases you'll encounter on your quest to uncover more information about your Black family history.

AAHGS: An organization devoted to genealogical research of African-American Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society was founded in 1977 and has chapters across the United States devoted to genealogical research for African-Americans.

Afrigeneas: the oldest online site and forum devoted to African American genealogy. In its heyday, it hosted weekly genealogy chats. You can still find the archives online, however, most of the chats and resource sharing happens in its Facebook group.

Argument: See Proof Argument

Autosomal DNA: Genetic information stored in the “numbered” 22 pairs of chromosomes inherited from parents--one half of each pair comes from one parent, the second half comes from the other parent. The DNA that makes up these chromosomes comes from each parent but selected at random. Separately, one sex chromosome (X or Y) is inherited from each parent. See Recombination or Autosome

Autosome: A “numbered” chromosome, one of the 22 pairs of chromosomes inherited from both parents. See Autosomal DNA or Recombination

Beat: Often seen in rural areas of Mississippi and Alabama on the Census and other records, a “beat” is a subdivision of a county and/or voting precinct similar to a township.

BlackProGen: Popular YouTube series led by Genealogists Nicka Sewell-Smith and True Lewis along with a panel of experts. BlackProGenLive! covers all facets of genealogical research for Black folks.

Census: A population listing or enumeration conducted either at local, county, state or federal level. Census enumerations were created to track military prospects and later used for taxation.

Centimorgan (cM): Unit of distance measurement (as in inch, foot, meter) for DNA. The distance between one point to another

County: A smaller subdivision of a state. Counties are made up of townships and are usually run by elected commissioners or supervisors. Counties have a county seat which is similar to a capital. See Beat orSection

DNA Match: A person who shares DNA, and presumably, a shared ancestor.

Endogamy: A practice of marrying and/or reproducing within the same group (ethnic, religious, caste. etc). Because endogamy is a practice which occurs over many generations, a singular occurrence of intermarrying is not considered endogamy. See Pedigree Collapse.

Enslaved: In the context of trafficking and trading humans as commodities through the 19th century, the term ‘enslaved African(s)’ refers to people of African descent who were kidnapped, purchased, traded, or coerced from their countries or regions of origin in Africa and transported to the United States or other countries specifically for the purpose of chattel slavery.

They are referred to as “enslaved” and not “slaves” because enslavement was clearly the action that occurred. The term ‘slave(s)’ alone does not define clearly the act of enslavement.

Enslaver: The term enslaver should be used when referring to individuals who owned enslaved Africans and held them legally as property via purchase, sale, rent, or trade for the purpose of chattel slavery.

Family Tree Maker: A popular genealogy software which can be used to create or modify a family tree on a user’s computer. See RootsMagic

FamilySearch: a nonprofit organization operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Offers free access to genealogical records and provides genealogy educations for researches of all skills levels. Hosts RootsTech Conference annually.

Freedmen’s Bureau: an agency started by Congress in 1865 to assist in the political and social reconstruction of post-war Southern states and to help formerly enslaved people make the transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship. They also served refugees and issued abandoned lands. It’s formal, “government name” is The United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.

Freedmen's Bureau Fridays; Freedmen Friday: Weekly virtual gathering held by Dr. Shelley Murphy in which attendees spend the night digging through Freedmen’s Bureau records.

Freedmen of the Five Tribes: descendants of Freedmen who were enslaved by the peoples of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Nations. May also be the result of blended families between African American and Indigenous Americans. Our go-to expert for all things AfroNative roots is Angela Walton-Raji.

GedCOM: Type of file created when saving, exporting, or importing a family tree.

GedMatch: 3rd party DNA analysis website. GEDmatch allows DNA uploads from the major consumer DNA testing companies (Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage, etc).

kinkofa: a genealogy platform connecting Black family history seekers to the their relatives as well as the tools, resources, and support need to uncover our unique origin stories.

Midwestern African American Genealogy Institute (MAAGI):  the only genealogy institute focused on researching African American ancestry. The 3-day intensives offer an expansive tracks of classes for beginning, intermediate, and advanced genealogists and family historians. Takes place every summer - either in person or virtually. Sells out quickly, make sure you sign up for their mailing list.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA): A type of DNA stored in mitochondria, not chromosomes. mtDNA is passed on from mother to child, and can be used to trace direct maternal lineage (i.e. mother’s mother’s, mother’s….lineage).

Mulatto: An obsolete designation of race for a person of color having mixed ancestry including but not limited to African, Native Indigenous, and European. The term Mulatto is early records like censuses, wills, and probates where you may see it marked as 'M' in the "race" category. See Sambo or Octoroon or Quadroon or Person of Color

National Archives and Records Administration: the depository of the Federal Government's records deemed of permanent value for historical purposes. Learn more about what records the archives hold: here.

Naturalization: The process which a non-citizen or immigrant becomes a citizen of a country or nationality. Naturalization status is sometimes denoted on the US Census and naturalization records are held by the National Archives.

Octoroon: An obsolete designation of race for a person of color having 1 African great-grandparent and 7 white grandparents. See Sambo or Octoroon or Mulatto or Person of Color.

Our Black Ancestry: a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources for African American genealogical research, preserving historic materials and properties, and promoting healing of wounds that are the legacy of slavery. You may find additional information about on its website and engage with members via its Facebook group.

Pa-Not-Pa/Non-Paternal Event (NPE): Term used to describe an unexpected revelation that a father is not biologically related, often using DNA evidence.

Parish: See County or Section or Beat or Enumeration District

Pedigree Collapse: when parents are related to one another their common ancestors appear in more than one place (repeats) in a pedigree. This also results in fewer unique ancestors. See Endogamy

Primary Source: A document or other evidence either created by a research subject of interest or during the time period being researched. Think of the game “Telephone” the person who starts the game is a primary source of information because they give a first-hand account. See Secondary Source

Proof Argument: An explanation which tries to prove a genealogical claim (argument) using records and citations (proof) as corroborated evidence.

Quadroon: An obsolete designation of race for a person of color having 1 African grandparent and 3 white grandparents. See Sambo or Octoroon or Mulatto or Person of Color

Reconstruction Era (1865-1877):the period of legal, political, and social reconstruction that followed the Civil War and the emancipation of formerly enslaved people. Federal officials and troops "remained in the South to enforce Black people’s new rights of freedom and citizenship and to administer educational and other programs for the formerly enslaved" through the Freedmen's Bureau. 

Repository: A research institution such as a local, state or national archive, a research library or courthouse. Commonly called Archives.

RootsMagic: A popular genealogy software which can be used to create or modify a family tree on a user’s computer. See Family Tree Maker

Sambo: A derogatory term and obsolete designation of race for a person of color having both African and Native Indigenous ancestry. See Quadroon or Octoroon or Mulatto or Person of Color

Secondary Source: A type of record or other evidence that references a primary source (original record). Think of the game “Telephone” a secondary source would be the 2nd person to pass a message because they heard it from the primary source.

Section: A subdivision of a township. A section is one square mile or 640 acres. See Township or County

Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage (SDUSMP): a non-profit lineage society for descendants of individuals enslaved in English colonial America and the United States of America from 1619-1865. It is dedicated to preserving the memory of our freed and enslaved ancestors. Hosts an annual conference every year either in-person or virtually. Learn more here.

Township: Varies by location. In United States, a township is usually a subdivision of a county made up of 36 sections (36 square miles). In other places, a township can refer to a small settlement. See Section or County

Vital Record: Government record involving a major life event such as Birth, Marriage, Divorce or Death. These records are often kept at a state or county/parish level.

X-chromosome: One of two types of sex chromosomes (the other being the Y-chromosome).

Y-chromosome: A male sex chromosome passed from father-to-son. People assigned male at birth usually have an X-chromosome and a Y-chromosome, where the X is inherited from the mother and the Y is inherited from the father. See X-chromosome or Autosomal DNA

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