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Finding Our History: African-American Names

Learn about the history of the African-American practice of creating new names.

In this article, you will find:

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Finding Our History: African-American Names

What's in a Name

Boys and girls born in Africa are traditionally given names that reflect the circumstances surrounding their birth, names that describe the state of their home or their parents' relationship at the time of birth, or names that indicate what the parents hope the child will become.

"A good name," wrote Spanish author Miquel de Cervantes, "is better than riches." Most of us never face the possibility of having something so precious taken from us, but how would you feel if it were to happen? It would leave you without an identity, and, perhaps even worse, rob you of a vital link to your heritage and ancestry.

This may sound like a scenario straight out of a science fiction movie or from a gloom-and-doom novel about the future, but it actually happened to thousands of African slaves who were ripped from their homes and brought to the United States several hundred years ago, primarily as cheap labor to work the fields of slave owners. Fortunately, the very basic right to bear names of their own choosing that reflected their ancestry and heritage was restored to these people following the Civil War. Ever since then, the African-American population in the U.S. has made up for what they lost by using a myriad of cultural influences and traditions—both old and new—to create names and name fashions that, while uniquely theirs, are also an integral part of the American name pool.

People Without Names

What's in a Name

The early names given to slaves were often taken from the Bible, from the work the slaves did, or from their owners' last names.

The slaves brought to the U.S. from Africa had to endure a number of brutal crimes against them, not the least of which was being stripped of the names they were given in their native countries. These names held great importance, as they were often bestowed during special ceremonies held to celebrate the giving of a new name. This forced abandonment of something so precious destroyed a vital link to their countries of origin and took away a heritage that dated back much further than that of their enslavers.

Rather than being called by the traditional and often very beautiful names that were so much a part of the culture they left behind, African slaves were given new names. Sometimes these new titles were given on the boats that brought them to America, and sometimes they were given by their owners when they got here. Slave owners thought nothing of replacing what they considered to be strange-sounding, exotic names with ones they could more easily pronounce.

These new slave names were often based on the popular names of the time, but they were usually given in their pet or shortened forms. If there was more than one slave with the same name in any given group, they were assigned various identifiers such as “little” or “big” so each would know who was being called for when a master beckoned. Typical names from this period included:

  • Biblical names like Adam and Eve (the names often given to the first man and woman brought aboard each slave ship)
  • Short, simple, percussive names like Tom, Jack, or Bill
  • Classical names such as Cato, Nero, Caesar, Pompey, Phoebe, and Venus, which came from such literary sources as the plays of Shakespeare and popular novels of the time
  • Nicknames like Curly, Tomboy, Prince, and Duke

In the years just prior to the Civil War, it also became fashionable among slave families, as it was among their owners, to use the surnames of American leaders as first names. Washington was the name most often used; Madison and Jefferson also were popular.

When Freedom Rang

What's in a Name

Moses, a name that is often thought of as a slave name, had no strong racial connection until the years following the 1831 hanging of Nat Turner, a preacher who led an early anti-slavery movement. Many enslaved mothers wanted to name their sons Nat in honor of the fallen leader, but they feared punishment for doing so. Instead, they used Moses, a name that was popular among whites and that became a code name for Nat.

After the conclusion of the Civil War, one of the first things that many freed slaves did was cast aside the names that had been forced upon them by their former masters and adopt new names that reflected their freedom. Some celebrated their new status by adopting the full forms of their shortened names. Others took their new naming freedom one step further and embellished these names by adding prefixes or suffixes (such as Medgar, the variation of Edgar given to civil rights leader Medgar Evers). Still others changed the spelling on their names to further distinguish them from the ones used by whites. It's easy to look at the unusual names drawn from naming pools of the time and conclude that blacks used very different names than whites did, but this really wasn't the case.

Different or unusual names always get more attention than the old standards do. There were definitely some unusual names doled out during this period, but it was done with similar frequency for both races. In fact, the names used by freed slaves during this period were often very similar to those chosen by whites, with popular names like John and Mary showing up with the same frequency for both races. Some names did carry racial overtones, but there was nothing unusual that would really make these names stand out from the crowd. Often, they were once-fashionable names for whites that then became popular with blacks. As they did, they would begin to fall from favor for whites.

What the newly freed slaves didn't do was revert to their ancestral names. They were often second- and third-generation descendants of the people who first came to the U.S., and the traditions and cultures of their native countries were long forgotten. Nor was there much new information coming from Africa that could be used to restore their heritage. Given the racial bias that was so strongly in place, the incentive was much greater to use names that were generally accepted and in broad use than those that were too far out of the ordinary.

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