African American & Black Canadian Family History

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The first Africans were brought to North America in the 1600s, first as indentured servants and then as slaves for life. The countries that later become Canada and America, legally imported and enslaved Africans for hundreds of years, over 200 years in Canada, and over 400 years in America. The British Crown began abolishing slavery in all of its colonies and territories in the late 1700s, thus Canada outlawed slavery gradually, beginning in 1794, ending completely, 30 years later, in 1834. In America, however, having successfully separated from British rule, Americans continued to enslave Africans for another two generations, finally abolishing slavery in 1865.

In all, over 40 million Africans were enslaved, though less than half that amount survived the journey and ended up in the Americas. The majority of Africans came from Nigeria, Congo, Angola, Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal, and from over a dozen other countries that border the Western coast, yet some African slaves also came from the island nation of Madagascar, off the Eastern coast. After Great Britain completely abolished slavery in 1808, it set up anti-slavery patrols along the African coast to discourage the exportation of any more slaves. This blockade, of sorts, led to a rapid decline in the numbers of Africans brought to the Americas, and though Great Britain pressured other countries to follow suit (which the U.S. did, in 1808), American ships were not used to enforce this law until 1859.

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Each state abolished slavery in its own time, based on political, economic and religious grounds, and since they were independent entities, each had the ability to attach strings to whatever statutes they passed. Additionally, some counties and cities added their own spin to the mix, making for an often confusing set of laws and rules, so knowing the laws which existed where your ancestors lived, at any given time, will impact how successful you are in finding them.

In some states, free-born blacks had different rights than escaped or manumitted blacks, and often, free laws were modified to restrict some of the freedoms formerly granted, making the locations less and less appealing to blacks. In general, once free, blacks might not be able to:

  • Own property
  • Own a business
  • Attend school, or could only attend a segregated school
  • Vote
  • Testify in court against whites
  • Remain in the county after a certain period of time
  • Be buried anywhere but in a colored cemetery
  • Be out after dark
  • Travel outside city or county limits without written permission
  • Be anywhere without proof of his/her free status

Again, you need to do due diligence to ascertain what rules and laws were in force in the places where your ancestors lived, knowing that these laws were subject to change. Based on this (partial) list of possible restrictions, what records might we find to help us document the lives of our free black ancestors?

Own Property - Unable to own property, blacks were often able to enter into agreements with whites, agreeing to lease or rent said property, and even take out a mortgage on farm equipment or livestock, as security for the loan. Many of these agreements were recorded in the local county with other land records, so it's worth it to look for them.

Own a business - Even if they didn't own their businesses outright, they still might appear in city or county directories or may have taken out ads in local newspapers (both black-owned and white-owned newspapers).

Attend segregated school - Oh, if only there were better records to document the children, educators and administrators of the hundreds of segregated schools in the U.S. and Canada but, sadly, few exist. In the U.S., the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education ordered the immediate end to segregated schools (though the unofficial segregation of schools continues to this day), in Canada, however, the last black-only school wasn't closed until 1983 (Guysborough, Nova Scotia). Just like black churches, black-only schools kept few records that have survived, and tracing your ancestors with school records will probably yield few results

Vote - Many blacks were allowed to vote in free states and certainly in Canada. These voting lists may or may not list race, and generally only list the person's name, but can help you place your ancestor in a given place and time. In some cases, though, as more and more blacks moved into an area, local whites became uneasy and often voted to deny blacks the right to vote. Each location is different, and it's possible to find your black ancestor listed in early voting records but not later ones.

Testify in Court - Though blacks could be charged with crimes, in many free states, they did not have the right to testify in court against whites. In cases (e.g. San Francisco, circa 1850) where injustices had been done against blacks, having no legal recourse, they sometimes lost businesses, property, and even their lives. Even if your ancestor lived in a place where he/she couldn't testify against whites, it's still worth it to look to see if they were involved in legal matters before the court.

Remain in the County - Particularly in Southern states, blacks who were manumitted were often required to leave the county within, for example, six months, in order to discourage an increase in the number of free blacks who might tempt enslaved blacks to revolt. For this reason, a free-born black would sometimes buy his or her manumitted spouse or children, in order to keep their family together. Yes, some blacks were slave owners, and not all of them simply owned family members. Some black enslavers took full advantage of chattel slavery in order to increase their wealth and standing. Don't assume that all of the slave owners listed in the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules were white - many were black.

Colored Cemeteries - In many ways, colored cemeteries are a blessing for researchers, as it makes it much easier to differentiate your ancestor from whites with the same name. But there are downsides. Many black cemeteries were associated with a nearby church, and black churches, in general, didn't keep records. Plus, blacks often lacked the funds needed to buy a gravestone, so most are buried in unmarked graves. In some areas, local genealogical societies have obtained burial records from the black cemeteries' owners and/or local undertakers, and have published these records. In far too many cases, though, you may never be able to definitely locate when or where your ancestor was buried.

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Travel outside city limits or after dark - Free papers were often required to be in the possession of manumitted blacks, at all times. In addition, a black wanting or needing to be out after dark or to leave the city/county limits, might also have to carry a passport, proving that he or she was allowed to do so. These passports were issued by the local county authorities and were not, in any way, related to the national immigration offices.

Escaped Blacks Returned to Fight in the Civil War

Having made it to the Promised Land of Canada, as the Civil War waged on, many fugitive blacks opted to return to the U.S. to fight the Confederates, as free men. Despite the risks of recapture associated with the second Fugitive Slave Act (of 1850), black Canadians participated in the Civil War. Separated by the ravages of slavery, many who'd escaped to Canada took this opportunity to help the North win, in hopes that the fugitives would be able to reunite with their families. It's estimated that at least 50,000 Canadians served in the Civil War, and many of them black, though the actual number of black Canadians will probably never be known.

Remembering that the Civil War regiments were segregated, you may find evidence of your black Canadian ancestors in the USCT (United States Colored Troops) records or possibly in the U.S. Navy (separate record group from the USCT). Civil War records can provide information about your ancestors you might not find elsewhere, and used in concert with the1861 Canadian Census, these two record groups can fill in many of the blanks in your family file. The first national Canadian Census was in 1851, and unlike its 1850 U.S. counterpart, the 1851 Canadian Census listed all persons by full name. Both the 1851 and 1861 Canadian Censuses listed race and place of birth, and some Census Enumerators were kind enough to even list the state where the people were born. Though that extra step wasn't required, it's worth examining the census records to see if you might see this information.

Even if the birth state isn't listed in the Canadian Census, having the names, ages, color, and religion of every single ancestor can be a godsend, especially since vital records weren't recorded, provincially, until 1869, in Ontario.

Black Canadians who "Fudged" their Immigration

Immigration into the United States normally meant that the person would pass through an entry point, be asked a bunch of questions about their origin and final destination, and either be accepted or denied entry into the U.S. After that point, the person would, most often, apply for naturalization in order to become a U.S. citizen, a process that took several years. But the U.S./Canadian border was, until recently, quite open, and having grown up in Detroit, I used to go to lunch in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, a short five minute trip through the Windsor tunnel. I didn't have to present any identification and the questions asked had more to do with whether or not I carrying concealed weapons (Detroit, remember) than if I was a U.S. or Canadian citizen.

This long-standing openness led to Canadians and Americans "fudging" their immigration on both sides of the border. Sharing a common language and similar cultures, it's not uncommon to see former Canadians move to the United States and simply "become" American. When the Census Enumerator came around, these immigrants would simply say they were born in the U.S. And vice-versa. The Canadian border states of Michigan started recording BMDs (birth, marriage and death records) statewide in 1867, New York in 1880, Vermont in 1955 (yikes!) and Maine in 1892, so it was easy to just "say" you were born in the U.S. and that your birth wasn't recorded, thus no vital record to prove otherwise. There was no Social Security in 1930 (a U.S. census year), so unless you needed government benefits, there was no need to prove where you were born. These pseudo-citizens voted, bought property, sent their kids to public schools, probably crossed the border back and forth (repeatedly), and instantly just "became" citizens of their new country without bothering to formally immigrate or naturalize.

Don't be surprised if the birth place or your ancestors "changes" from census to census, but please make sure to verify as much information about them as possible, to ensure that you are dealing with the correct family. This practice was fairly widespread around the turn of the 20th century and it can be very confusing. No matter how certain I am that my ancestor was actually born in the Canada, even though one or two census records says they were born in the U.S., I look for records in both countries, anyway, just to cover my bases and make sure I haven't overlooked something. You just never know. I've seen it many times when one child in the family was born in one country, while everyone else was born in another, though the records actually say something quite different.

Discrimination Against Blacks in Canada

Blacks in Canada encountered discrimination in nearly identical ways as they did in the U.S., and the records that resulted from this can help you identify your ancestors:

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Tracing African American & Black Canadian Ancestry

Tracing one's ancestors back through slavery in Canada is incredibly more challenging simply because of the lack of records. Blacks in the U.S., whether free or enslaved, were clearly denoted as being colored, black, Negro, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, FPOC (free person of color), mustee or griffe. Unless the person was very light skinned and able to pass for white, virtually all records recorded them in one of these non-white terms. Blacks in Canada, however, were sometimes identified as non-white, but probably in more times than not, they were simply listed by name with no notation of their ethnic origin. Even though blacks in Canada were Emancipated a generation earlier than blacks in the U.S., this distinction of always listing blacks in records the U.S. as non-white versus sometimes listing blacks in records Canada as non-white makes finding blacks in Canada more difficult, particularly if your black Canadian ancestor had a common name.

"Black-only" records can be helpful, but they're not the only place you'll need to search when documenting your black ancestors, regardless where they lived. Blacks were included in censuses, white-owned newspapers, records of white churches, the military, local taxes, voter registrations, city directories, wills, land records, and vital records. As a result, the table, below, lists most of the sources needed to trace blacks in Canada:

  • Census records
  • Land records
  • Wills
  • Runaway slave notices
  • Search and reward notices
  • Vital records
  • Manumissions (rare)
  • Prison/jail records
  • Tax/assessment records
  • City directories (no notations of race/color)
  • Book of Negroes
  • Military/militia records
  • Newspapers
  • Upper Canada sundries
  • Church records
  • Slave narratives
  • Voting registrations
  • Early Canadian books
  • Government records

The primary focus is to help you find your ancestors and, hopefully, tell your stories. There are countless Web sites, books, microfilm reels, newspaper articles and original documents that tell about the lives of black Canadians, and many are cited below. The contribution of blacks to the greater Canadian history is often overlooked and minimized. If your ancestors spent any time in Canada, you should take advantage of the records available to you, so you can tell a more complete and meaningful history of the lives they lived.

African American & Black Canadian Family History Resources

UNC Chapel Hill - Slave Narratives

UVA - Slave Narratives

Library of Congress - Slave Narratives

Slavery Era Insurance Registry for California

Runaway Slave Ads, Transcribed from the VA Gazette

Free African Americans in VA, NC, DE, MD, and SC

Slavery in the North (CT, DE, MS, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, OH, IL, IN, WI)

Digital Library on American Slavery

New York Historical Society - Slavery Collection

Black History Canada, Timeline

Slavery in Canada

Africana Online, "Slavery in Canada"

Brown-Kubisch, Linda. 2004. The Queen's Bush Settlement: Black pioneers, 1839-1865. Toronto: Natural Heritage Books.

Gaffen, Fred. 1995. Cross-border warriors: Canadians in American forces, Americans in Canadian forces: from the Civil War to the Gulf. Toronto: Dundurn Press.

Hoy, Claire. 2004. Canadians in the Civil War. Toronto: McArthur & Co.

McKerrow, P.E., Frank Stanley Boyd, and Mary I. Allen Boyd. 1976. A Brief History of Blacks in Nova Scotia (1783-1895). Halifax, N.S.: Afro Nova Scotian Enterprises.

Spray, W.A. 1972. The Blacks in New Brunswick. Fredericton, N.B.: Brunswick Press.

Thomas, Hugh. 1997. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Winks, Robin W. 1997. The Blacks in Canada: A History. Montreal, Que: McGill-Queen's University Press.

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