How Do I Track Deep South Roots?

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.

If you cannot find a record of Alford/Alfred in any of the Clarksdale cemeteries, you may also want to find local African-American churches to see if they have any parish registers from 1900 to 1910.


Finding the Parents

As with most genealogical research, to find Alford/Alfred's parents, it is best to start with the most recent documents and keep working backward. The 1900 U.S. Federal Census lists him under the name Alfred. It also gives his birthplace as Tennessee, shows that he was born in May 1854 and lists other kin in the household whom you have mentioned. However, when searching the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, we did not find a record that matches this description. Keep in mind that the accuracy of census records can vary greatly, depending on who was giving the information to the census-taker or how the information was recorded. Given this, in searching for earlier records of Alford/Alfred be sure to use a range of ages and variation in places of birth for each census year.


We did find a possible record for him in the 1870 U.S. Federal Census. This record shows a 16-year-old boy named Alfred Anderson who was born in Tennessee circa 1854. He was living with Moses and Nancy Anderson, presumably his parents, in Nashville, Davidson County, Tenn. You will want to investigate this couple more to determine whether or not they were the parents of Alfred. One way to do this is to find a record of them in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census to determine whether or not their son named Alfred was still living with them.

In our search of the 1880 census, we found that there was a Moses and Nannie Anderson, who were both born in Tennessee but living in Indianapolis, Marion County, Ill. Their son, Alfred, was no longer living with them. It was not uncommon for many African-American families to move to Northern cities during the Jim Crow era in the South. Indianapolis was a popular destination for many families looking to start a new life in the North. You will want to continue to research this couple to see if they had any additional children, possible siblings of Alford/Alfred, and find death records or obituaries, which might prove a connection to the Alford/Alfred Anderson who moved to Coahoma County, Miss.


King and Anderson Plantation

You mentioned that Alford/Alfred Anderson might have a connection to the King and Anderson Plantation. This large, 17,000-acre plantation was located just outside of Clarksdale, and its operations began in the 1830s and continued into the mid- to late-20th century. Given his surname and proximity to the plantation, it is possible that he worked there. The records of the King and Anderson are not available online, so we searched to see if there are physical copies available for research. We used the website ArchiveGrid, a search engine for physical archival collections. In our search, we found that some of records and ledger books dating from 1882 to the 1970s for the King and Anderson are currently held at the University of Mississippi Libraries in Oxford, Miss. The library has posted a finding aid online, which gives you some more detailed information about the collection and how to access the records.


We also found the list of slaves for the King and Anderson Plantation in the 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules. In that year, they enumerated 80 slaves, including 5- and 6-year-olds, which was the approximate age of Alford/Alfred in 1860.

Preparing for Your Research Trip

If you do decide to travel to Coahoma County or the University of Mississippi Archives in Oxford, a little preparation before your trip can greatly aid your research. As mentioned, you will want to contact any libraries, churches and cemeteries before your visit, to make sure the records you would like to search are available for research. You will also want to obtain information on any requirements or associated fees for accessing the records or making copies. The more preparation you do before your trip, the more time you can spend on researching the records. Good luck!


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Founding Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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