An important part of the work of preserving our African American cemeteries is uncovering and sharing the stories of the individuals who were laid to rest in these hallowed grounds. In the past, many historical societies and genealogy groups ignored or overlooked African American cemeteries. We honor those who came before us when we remember their names and tell their stories. Every life and every story matters.
Researching the lives of everyday people is not always easy, and researching the lives of African Americans can be even harder. There are often fewer records that were produced and saved, and the records that do exist are often incomplete or inaccurate. Especially in nineteenth century records, its common to find names that are misspelled or spelled multiple ways. For individuals who may have been fleeing slavery or trying to start new lives after slavery, it was common for them to assume new “freedom names” of their own choosing, or to lie about their prior lives. Even the information that can be found in newspapers and public documents often provides only a tiny glimpse at the fullness of their lives and stories.
Here are a few sources that can help you to get started locating information about African Americans in Pennsylvania and uncovering their stories:
Ancestry Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania State Historical and Museum Commission Records on Ancestry.com): The Pennsylvania State Archives partnered with Ancestry.com to digitize and make available for free a wide array of records that can be used to research information about individuals who may have graves in Pennsylvania. You will need to create a free Ancestry.com account, and you will need to login on this webpage and give your Pennsylvania Zip Code. Some of the most useful records in this group are the Pennsylvania Veteran Burial Cards and the Pennsylvania Death Certificates, but it is worthwhile to explore many of these records.
Camp William Penn Website: A website with vast resources for researching individuals and regiments of the United States Colored Troops that were mustered and trained at Camp William Penn.
Chronicling America: A website created by the Library of Congress offering free access to digitized newspapers from 1777 to 1963. Note that the papers and communities represented here are limited and reflect significantly fewer communities that Newspapers.com.
Family Search Website (Free): This free website was developed by the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints to allow people to research their families. You will need to create a free account to use the site. While it is less comprehensive than Ancestry.com, it provides full access to a wide range of documents, including the United States manuscript censuses. The site is relatively easy to use–just enter the name (or variations of a name) into the “Search” tab.
National Park Service Soldiers and Sailors Database: The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS) is a database containing information about the men who served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. Other information on the site includes histories of Union and Confederate regiments, links to descriptions of significant battles, and selected lists of prisoner-of-war records and cemetery records, which will be amended over time.
Nationwide Gravesite Locator, U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, National Cemetery Administration: This website allows you to search for burial locations of veterans and their family members in VA National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, various other military and Department of Interior cemeteries, and for veterans buried in private cemeteries when the grave is marked with a federal government grave marker. Please note: Pennsylvania had its own state grave marker program and so many veterans who died and were buried in the state could have graves marked with those state markers that are not included in this database.
Newpapers.com (Paid): Newspapers.com is the largest online newspaper archive consisting of 798 million+ pages of historical newspapers from 25,200+ newspapers from around the United States and beyond. It is a valuable resource for locating obituaries and information about churches, cemeteries, and organizations. Unfortunately, it is a paid subscription service although a fourteen-day free trial membership is available for those doing limited searches. It is available at many local and county historical societies.
Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory of 1910: A guide created in 1910 that provides data about the African American communities, businesses, and prominent business people of the state. Provides great snapshots of communities that were included.
Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War National Grave Registration Database: The SUVCW National Graves Registration Project was established in 1996. The volunteer project seeks to record, verify, research and enter the final resting places of all Union Civil War veterans.