The African American Family History Association

The African American Family History Association (AAFHA) was founded in Atlanta, Georgia in May 1977. This was a period of exuberance about family history, following the 1976 publication of Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Roots, and the phenomenal television mini-series of the book that was broadcasted in 1977. AAFHA was established to promote interest in African American family history and genealogy through programs of study, collection and preservation of historical materials, publications and education. This non-profit educational organization thrived under the leadership of Joyce Jelks, Casper Jordan, Lavonia McIntyre, Joann Martin, Joyce Mills, Herman Mason, Carole Merritt, Rodney Poitier and broad membership of budding genealogists.

AAFHA was an outgrowth of a three-part workshop, Pride in Our Past, sponsored by the Georgia Department of Archives and History. Many of the attendees to the workshops recognized a need for an organization that would foster and support researchers of black family history. During the twenty years of its existence, AAFHA provided the Atlanta area community with a wide range of educational lectures, book signings and instructional workshops about Black genealogy, culture, and history, that featured local and national speakers and authors. In addition, AAFHA organized tours to historical sites in Atlanta, Augusta, and Columbus, Georgia; Charleston and Savannah South Carolina; Tuskegee, Alabama; Memphis and Henning, Tennessee – the home of Alex Haley. AAFHA’s quarterly newsletter chronicled their activities and events. Most notable of AAFHA’s accomplishments were the preparation of several publications, displays, and major exhibitions on the Black family history in Georgia.

One of the first projects the AAFHA implemented was researching slave bills of sale in archival repositories in Georgia. The scope of the project was expanded to add manumission records, travel passes, correspondence, church and business records. These documents include a wealth of information about slaves such as name, age, sex, physical descriptions, kinship, and special skills, as well as the business transactions of the sales such as place, slave ownership, conditions of enslavement, terms of sales and price. Over 2,500 slaves and nearly 1,400 sellers and buyers were identified. The research was compiled into a two-volume index, Slave Bill of Sale Project (published March 1986, Joann Martin, editor and principal researcher) and is a rich resource of information on slave ancestry.

The AAFHA published two other works in conjunction with three major exhibitions. Funded largely through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, these exhibits increased public awareness and appreciation for the rich and long history of Black families in Georgia dating back to 1750 in the early colonization period.

The first exhibit, Homecoming: African American Family Life and History in Georgia, was displayed March 26- September 30, 1982 at the Atlanta Public Library. This award-winning exhibition had an accompanying publication of the same title authored by Carole Merritt. Virginia Shadron was curator for the exhibit, “On Record: Documenting African American Family History in Georgia” that was on display June-February 1982 at the Georgia Department of Archives and History. Largely comprised of government documents, these official records reveal useful genealogical information about families. The third exhibit, Finding a Way, The Black Family’s Struggle for an Education at the Atlanta University Center was displayed in the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center from February 6, 1983-February 1, 1984. Its popularity to visitors and alumni resulted in the exhibit remaining on display for over 20 years; and it has become an important tool for AUC faculty in teaching the history and legacy of the Atlanta University Center. Selections from the exhibit and the accompanying catalog authored by Beverly Guy-Sheftall have been reformatted to a virtual exhibit displayed on the Woodruff Library’s website.

The last major exhibit sponsored by the AAFHA was displayed at the Apex Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, January – April 1991. Herman Mason was curator of this exhibit entitled, Hidden Treasures: African American Photographers in Atlanta, 1870-1970. The exhibit and accompanying catalog documented 47 African American photographers and studios in Atlanta and included biographical sketches, photographs of the photographers and selections of their work.

The AAFHA held its last meetings in 1997. However, the contributions and legacy of the African American Family History Association lives on through its publications. More information about the AAFHA is available for research in the Archives & Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center.