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Primary Sources in African-American History

Tips, techniques & links to help you find answers for your research papers & projects

African Americans and American Governments

Government, federal state and local, has at various times served as an agent of destruction, exploitation and loss of liberty for African Americans, and an instrument for encoding and protecting African-Americans' rights as citizens.

It is the aim of this guide to assist the researcher in finding the variety of intersections between government and African American life in the United States. Some primary sources that are not government sources are included as well, but the emphasis is on government sources at the federal, state and local level.

The guide is a work in progress; areas still being worked on as librarians have time are listed in the box below, along with types of documents we anticipate addressing within each category. We have made this guide public because we believe that in some areas there is already enough information to be useful.


Areas for Future Inclusion In This Guide

Please contact Rachel Brekhus,, if you have suggestions of good sources for the following information. We have some already, but suggestions are welcome as we work on the next sections of this guide.

  • Slavery and Labor: Documentation of debates within British and U.S. legislative bodies related to abolition of slavery; shipping and trade documents related to the slave trade; compensation of slave owners for freed slaves; slaves used as collateral for land purchases and the like; sources of narrative and statistical information on laws, law enforcement, conditions of African-American labor after slavery; peonage laws, hiring out of prisoners, interracial wage comparisons
  • African Americans in the Military - documentation of Colored Regiments and militia units; laws and regulations pertaining to African American soldiers, correspondence of African American soldiers, African-American veterans' organizations
  • African Americans and Education - laws governing/restricting education of slaves and/or free blacks, documentation of schools and colleges serving African Americans, documentation of segregation and desegregation in public and private schools, statistics on African American educational attainment, other aspects of African American experiences in the educational system
  • Sex and Gender - laws regulating African American sexuality, including but not limited to laws forbidding or constraining marriage, anti-miscegenation statutes, etc. Documentation of forced sterilizations. Public opinion survey data on African Americans' opinions on issues related to sex, gender, sexual orientation, reproduction
  • Travel and Recreation - laws regulating/constraining African Americans' freedom of movement; documentation of laws and regulations on public accommodation, and struggles to change these; laws concerning African Americans' use of parks, swimming pools, participation in clubs, sports leagues, entertainment industry. Museums and memorialization of African American history
  • Religion - laws regulating religious meetings by enslaved people; missionary files; types of records kept by churches and hints on where to find them; FBI files on ministers and other religious figures and institutions
  • African American portrayals in art, and artists