October 16th, 2013

Ethnic Schools – Often Overlooked Archives of Family Facts

Schools that are devoted to educating a particular ethnic group can be very valuable archives of ancestral records. Although it may take some effort to locate the records we’re looking for, they are out there, and can tell us what other sources can’t. In some cases it may be even easier to locate info on our ancestor in these institutions. For instance, schools overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are excellent sources for those tracing their Native American Ancestry and their records are on par with those found in modern schools.

Most Native American school records are housed by the federal government, and are stored on microfilm at the National Archives. The office of Indian Affairs also compiled school censuses of Indian children at town and county level throughout the United States, though not in any consistent format. In addition to normal public schools, institutions such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania served as boarding schools for Native American children. This school operated form 1879 to 1918, one of its most famous students being the renowned and talented Olympian and Football legend.

Until the desegregation of schools in 1954, most districts in the southern United States ran separate schools for white and black students. The scholastic census records during that time featured separate lists for black and white students, often using different color paper for each. Those records may also be found on microfilm at the National Archives, though researchers should be aware that the different color paper is not detectable on microfilm, and the records itself does not always designate race. Ione of the best known schools for black students is the Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington. Some of the records from that institution are available online at the AfriGeneas.com website.

Universities and Colleges

Institutions of higher level are excellent sources of genealogical information compared to those of primary and elementary school level. College and University records document registration, admission, course of study, and graduation, and often school archivists compile biographies and histories of former students. The preserved admission forms that most institutions possess can reveal a wealth of family data.

Yearbooks are also a go-to genealogical source, as they can reveal the attendance of an individual and provide biographical information about them. You will usually find yearbooks in the possession of alumni associations or in college and university libraries; they are well worth ordering if you trace your ancestor to such an institution. Alumni directories also yield valuable data such as subsequent business addresses and work histories of former students. Many also include the names of children or spouses.

Institutions such as West Point can be an excellent source of military records and histories. Of course they will only contain information about Union soldiers, and Confederate records are notoriously hard to find. Oversees institutions such as Cambridge University in England should also not be overlooked, and databases for such institutions can be found at sites like Ancestry.com. Of course Ancestry.com is a subscription site and I like to stick to free genealogy resources, but these records do provide valuable information such as birth date and place, names of parents and siblings, occupation, and notable achievements.

The bottom line is that these specialized records should not be overlooked; they contain valuable data that you might not find anywhere else. Most of them are easy to access, and many are free. In fact, they are some of the best places to begin a genealogical search for a hard to find ancestor.