Tracing African Diaspora Family History Through the Archives

Patrick Vernon explores how maps, records, family trees, and historical images can help to discover the past

By Google Arts & Culture

African diaspora approaches to family history and genealogy can involve looking at maps, documentary records, oral history, and more. These are all important resources in reclaiming and defining our identity, building our resilience, and providing a platform to understand and develop our own solutions in tackling inequality, racism, and the negative impact of globalization.

Using a world history perspective is essential in understanding the complexity of family history in an African context. Explore some of the different ways you can uncover your family history...

Map of West Africa 'Regio Nigritarum' (1663) by Joan BlaeuBlack Cultural Archives

Using maps to trace family history

Maps are becoming an invaluable resource in tracing family history. Historically, maps were developed using information from a variety of sources. European missionaries, soldiers, entrepreneurs, diplomats, and explorers over the centuries have all contributed to map-making, often to reflect their own ‘interests’, to illustrate opportunities, and, in some cases, to try and justify colonization.

Maps of the Caribbean and Africa Maps of the Caribbean and Africa (1662-1994) by VariousBlack Cultural Archives

Interpretation of these early maps can offer insight into the political, social, and environmental factors that have shaped, and continue to shape, African diaspora family history.

Amy Barbour-James (Circa 1907) by This photo was retrieved from Amy Barbour's house by Historian Jeffrey GreenBlack Cultural Archives

Discovering ancestry through the archives

There is a range of family information that you can obtain from your local council archives, family history centers, and National Archives, including civil certificates from weddings and funerals, census records, and military records.

Arnold Gordon (2016) by BBCBlack Cultural Archives

Through records, Arnold Gordon was able to trace his ancestor... 

Sara Bonetta Forbes (1987) by Viking booksBlack Cultural Archives

...Sarah Forbes Benetta, a West African Egbado princess of the Yoruba people. 

Cedric Barber (2016) by BBCBlack Cultural Archives

Cedric Barber was able to trace Francis Barber...

Francis Barber by Sir Joshua ReynoldsBlack Cultural Archives

...his ancestor from Jamaica who worked for Dr Samuel Johnson.

George Scipio Africanus (1987) by Len GarrisonBlack Cultural Archives

Tracing history through family trees

People can also trace the family history of their African and Caribbean descendants through family trees.

For instance, see the family tree of George Africanus, a free servant in Wolverhampton with the Molineux family who then moved to Nottingham where he was married and started a family. The family tree is visible over two generations.

Black Nurses: The Woman who Saved the NHS (2016) by MaroonProductionsBlack Cultural Archives

Discover the Windrush Generation through historical images

Tens of thousands of individuals, often teenagers or young adults, migrated to Britain after the Second World War and up to the late 1960s. Many have never been afforded the opportunity to look back on their shared past. 

Through exploring historical images of the Caribbean, these young people can share the lessons and challenges of their own journey in the context of family history and migration, or simply reminisce about their family’s past.

Empire Windrush (1990) by UnknownBlack Cultural Archives

The Windrush Generation came initially by ships – and subsequently by planes – to Britain. The ships’ passenger lists covering the period 1878 to 1960 are held at The National Archives. 

A Ship’s Manifest is particularly useful for its records details which may include the passenger’s name, date of birth, the port of departure and arrival, and the name of the ship they traveled on.

GIs who were stationed in Aberysychan village, Wales ("Circa1944") by Monk FamilyBlack Cultural Archives

These different resources are great places to start discovering your family history and begin engaging in intergenerational dialogue about community and heritage. 

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Credits: Story

Words by Patrick Vernon OBE, inventor of the family history board game The Windrush Game.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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