Background: Results of previous autopsy studies indicate that increased hepatic iron stores or hepatic iron overload is common in African Americans dying in hospitals, but there are no reports of hepatic iron content in other cohorts of African Americans. Methods: We investigated the prevalence of heavy liver iron deposition in African American adults. Using established histochemical criteria, we graded Perls' acid ferrocyanide-reactive iron in the hepatocytes and Kupffer cells of 341 consecutive African American adults who were autopsied in the coroner/medical examiner office. Heavy staining was defined as grade 3 or 4 hepatocyte iron or grade 3 Kupffer cell iron. Results: There were 254 men and 85 women (mean age ± 1 SD: 44 ± 13 y vs. 48 ± 14 y, respectively; p = 0.0255); gender was unstated or unknown in two subjects. Approximately one-third of subjects died of natural causes. Heavy staining was observed in 10.2% of men and 4.7% of women. 23 subjects had heavy hepatocyte staining only, six had heavy Kupffer cell staining only, and one had a mixed pattern of heavy staining. 15 subjects had histories of chronic alcoholism; three had heavy staining confined to hepatocytes. We analyzed the relationships of three continuous variables (age at death in years, hepatocyte iron grade, Kupffer cell iron grade) and two categorical variables (sex, cause of death (natural and non-natural causes)) in all 341 subjects using a correlation matrix with Bonferroni correction. This revealed two positive correlations: hepatocyte with Kupffer cell iron grades (p < 0.01), and male sex with hepatocyte iron grade (p < 0.05). We also analyzed the relationship of steatosis, inflammation, and fibrosis/cirrhosis in 30 subjects with heavy iron staining using a correlation matrix with Bonferroni correction. There were significant positive correlations of steatosis with inflammation (r = 0.5641; p < 0.01), and of inflammation with fibrosis/cirrhosis (r = 0.6124; p < 0.01). Conclusions: The present results confirm and extend previous observations that heavy liver iron staining is relatively common in African Americans. The pertinence of these observations to genetic and acquired causes of iron overload in African Americans is discussed. © 2005 Barton et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.