Searching for Black Ancestors

For many African Americans, it is extremely difficult to learn the identities of their enslaved ancestors. There are many reasons for this, but the main problem is that so many of the documents that could be helpful are hidden in various courthouses and archives. Some are available online but only behind a paywall, and many have never been digitized at all. We are pleased to share with you what we believe to be truly a game-changing resource for African Americans with Kentucky roots to find the identities of their ancestors, as well as the people who enslaved them.

For the past 12 years, an historian named Charles Lemons has worked diligently to assemble a collection of information about Black people who lived in Kentucky during the early 19th Century.  The collection currently contains over 90,000 records about Black people, both enslaved and free, who lived in 108 of Kentucky’s counties. It includes data from censuses, wills and other legal documents, tax records, religious records, and military sources. We believe this work to be unprecedented in terms of both the number of people researched and the depth of details unearthed.

At this time, we offer four ways to use this research. You can search for an ancestor by name, either by first name and last name, just first name, or just last name. You can search for an enslaver by name, with the same options as above, or you can browse by county.  The browse by county tool can be useful if you know in a general way where your ancestors may have been enslaved. If you find no relevant records in the county where you think they may have been enslaved, be sure to check for other adjoining counties (this map of Kentucky’s counties can help).

You can also explore the database as a Google Sheets spreadsheet and see every bit of information that we have for every person. Please note this is a continuing work in progress, with more records being added all the time, so please check back at a later date if you do not find what you are looking for at this time. You can find a helpful user guide here which explains the various terms and abbreviations that are used in the  individual records.


We thank the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission for generously supporting this project.

Can we count on your support?

This website is a service of Reckoning, Inc., a small non-profit organization that depends on grants and donations to continue our work. Up to this point, we have avoided putting any paid advertising on our website. If you would like to help us keep it that way, please consider making a donation to our organization.