Few areas of American genealogy research pose as unique a challenge as the search for African American families. The vast majority of African Americans are descendants of the 380,000+ black Africans brought to North America to serve as slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since slaves had no legal rights, they are often not found in many of the traditional record sources available for that period, at least not by name.
African Americans can still discover their roots in the pre-1870 period, however. Exhaustive evaluation of census records and slave schedules can often turn up potential slave owners. The records of these slave owners -- bills of sale, wills, estate inventories, etc. -- can then be researched for slave names. Alternative record types created in the years following the Civil War, such as Freedman's Bureau records, 1867 voter registration records, and records of the Southern Claims Commission. Even DNA can potentially be used to discover family when no records can, especially along the direct paternal line.
Get started tracing your African American family history with Introduction to African-American Genealogy. Once you've done the basics, such as interviewing your family members, then these 15 Free Web Sites for African American Genealogy and 10 Great Databases for Slave Genealogy can help you further explore your black history and heritage.