How Do I Track Deep South Roots?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader seeks help doing pre-Civil War research in Mississippi and Tennessee.

African-American family in the 19th century (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
African-American family in the 19th century (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

(The Root) —

“I have been tracing my husband’s African-American family for a while now, and am stuck in the same place after 80-100 hours of research. What I’d like to find out are more details on Alford/Alfred Anderson (who was born in 1854 in Tennessee, according to census records) and his wife Tinie Smith (who may have been Native American, and born circa 1866). Who were Alford’s parents? When did Alford die? Where is he buried? I would also be interested in looking into any other ancestors who lived at the same time. I have been unable to push past the Civil War for any line.

“Alford married Tinie Smith in 1884 in Mississippi, and they started their family in Clarksdale, in Coahoma County, Miss. Clarksdale is famous as the birthplace of blues and musicians like Sam Cooke and John Lee Hooker. His family may be connected to the King and Anderson Plantation, but I can’t find the exact connection. I haven’t been able to travel to the area to find primary sources. Alford died sometime before 1910, but Mississippi didn’t keep death records until 1912.

“Tinie moved to Shelby County, Tenn., and lived with her child, Edmund, until her death in 1943. My husband’s ancestor, Eugene, stayed in Coahoma County. He had a son named Eugene, who married Leola Majors, and they had 14 children who lived to adulthood, including my husband’s father. They moved from Clarksdale to Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1957, after the death of Eugene Sr.

“What should be our next steps? We are willing to travel to Coahoma County if need be.” –Anna Kate Anderson 

Finding records from before the Civil War is a roadblock for many when researching their African-American heritage. Fortunately, you have found records of your husband’s ancestor, Alford Anderson, and his wife, Tinie (Smith) Anderson, in the early 20th century. Later records tend to be more detailed and can give you a good starting-off point to find pre-Civil War records. You also expressed a willingness to travel to find primary sources that are not easily available online. This is great way to find genealogical records that can contain a wealth of information on your family.

Finding Death Records

You know that Alford (or Alfred) likely died sometime between 1900 and 1910, since he was not enumerated in the 1910 U.S. Federal Census. You also know that the family was probably living in Clarksdale, Coahoma County, Miss., at the time of his death. As you noted, vital records were not recorded by the state during this time, but there are other sources that you can use to find information about Alford’s death.

First, see if you can locate and search city directories, which are lists of residents that may also give addresses and occupations. Occasionally death dates are given, or you can search each year until your ancestor is no longer listed to establish an approximate year of death. has Clarksdale, Miss., directories beginning in 1916, which is too late to find a record of Alford/Alfred, but if you are traveling to Clarksdale, the local library may have additional hard copies of the directories in their collections. Not all city directories listed African Americans, but the 1916 Clarksdale directory did, and denoted with them with an asterisk.

Once you have a date of death, try searching newspapers, which often include death notices and obituaries. For your particular case, you might check out Clarksdale Journal, an African-American newspaper that began in 1899. Although these newspapers may not be digitized, local libraries often have copies on microfilm, and occasionally there are accompanying indexes of obituaries, in case you don’t know the exact date of death. If you are planning a trip to Clarksdale, contact the local library first to discuss their newspaper and obituary holdings.

Other sources of information are the local cemeteries and churches. If you are unable to find a record of Alford/Alfred on cemetery-transcription sites, such as and, another option you have is to contact various cemeteries in Clarksdale to see if they have any records of a man named Alford/Alfred Anderson who was buried between 1900 and 1910. Occasionally there is a fee for a record lookup, but this varies by cemetery. The Coahoma County Mississippi Genealogy and History Network has a listing of cemeteries in Coahoma County on their website, which also has other useful genealogy links for Coahoma County that may help your research.