Southern genealogy research has its share of difficulties. But there is a rich resource that is often overlooked, and it can help you no matter if your ancestor was enslaved, a wealthy plantation owner, or a member of the community: Southern plantation records
You can also watch the interview with Ari Wilkins:
Ari Wilkins is a Library Associate at the Dallas Public Library and an expert on Southern plantation records.
What Are Southern Plantation Records?
These records were the family papers of plantation owners in the South. Some of the collections span 200-300 years. Within these papers could be slave registers, diaries, business papers, photographs, drawings (basically, anything that a family might keep).
Families donated their papers to 9-10 Southern libraries. These papers were microfilmed in the 1980s.
How Can They Be Used for Southern Genealogy?
As Ari mentioned, the records of a plantation could contain slave registers, which would be invaluable for slave research. Being personal papers, they are also going to give information about the family that owned the plantation.
But the value doesn't stop there. Even if your ancestor was a member of the community, he or she might be mentioned in the papers of the plantation in the area. (As Ari says, these records can be "gossip-y"!)
They are also excellent for building context, even if your ancestor isn't mentioned by name. If a natural disaster hit the area, for example, these records can give insight into what happened in the community.
Researching in a burned county? You'll definitely want to dive into these records. (Being family papers, they weren't kept at the courthouse!)
How Do You Know Where to Look?
These records were deposited at several libraries (mainly university libraries) in the South. They have been microfilmed. Some have been digitized and are available at some libraries with a subscription to ProQuest. (This isn't something that individuals subscribe to.)
There is a guide called Index to Records of Ante-bellum Southern Plantations: Locations, Plantations, Surnames, and Collections by Jean L. Cooper. This index is broken down by the locations of the plantations (as well as locations mentioned in the finding guides), surnames, etc.
One research strategy would be to look for the locations where you ancestors lived and see which set of plantation records include that area.
It doesn't appear that Cooper's book is still in print. However, you could look for it in WorldCat.org, then enter your zip code and see which libraries near you have a copy. There is also an earlier version that has some of the same information.
Once you identify a set of plantation papers that you want to use, you'l need to see where you can find that set of microfilm or find a library with a subscription to the relevant collection on ProQuest. (I suggest starting with a nearby college or university library or a large public library with a strong research collection. Not only are they more likely to subscribe to the ProQuest database, but they might have more success tracking down microfilm that can go on inter-library loan.)