If you are interested in African-American history, there are dozens of places to get started. History books, documentaries, and even anecdotes can reveal a lot, but did you realize that even your surname can tell you a lot about race in America and what your family has gone through?
You might not realize how many common names hide a dark past. Surnames have a ton to say about heritage, even when that heritage was forcibly severed. Race relations and African-American history are immortalized in the names of the community – looking into these stories can teach you a lot.
Below is an introduction of black history, some of the painful past that is baked into African-American naming conventions, and the most common surnames found in the African-American community.
The Great Stain On Our History
We should put a disclaimer here that much of this story is upsetting, enraging, or deals with difficult themes. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be studied; in fact, it’s all the more reason to dig into these stories.
If you are African-American and trying to look into your past through your last name, there will be many obstacles. It’s hard to find reliable records of African-American surnames past a certain point because the records that were kept either listed their captor’s name or no last name at all.
The Origins of African-American Surnames
Nothing seems more basic than a surname, but self-identifying as a part of a group or a family is a right that we take for granted. In fact, this right was not afforded to most African-Americans until after slavery was abolished.
Many people forced into bondage were given names by their white masters because they were used as a way to diminish black people as property. it severed many of the ties to the African roots of many African-Americans which is why it can be so hard to find out where they came from.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
The slave trade started in the 16th century and went on until the 19th. It’s a great stain on our past and the biggest factor in researching African-American heritage. That line of ancestry was cut by the institution of chattel slavery, which sought to dehumanize the enslaved by taking away their dignity, their children, and even their names.
People were taken from their homes and packed into the slave ships for the “Middle Passage” which is what the forced migration to America was called. In the ships, these people endured inhuman conditions. They were forced to wear chains and roughly 15% of people died before making it to their destination.
Slavery permeated much of American life in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in the South. Even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves despite proclaiming that all men are created equal.
Names During The Era Of Slavery
Many enslaved people taken from Africa were renamed in the Americas and even given the last name of their captors. This is the reason that years later, in the 20th century, noted civil rights leader Malcolm X renounced his “slave name” and took on X to represent the name he should have had had his ancestors not been taken by colonizers.
In addition to the horror of being taken from your home and given a new name like Smith or Williams, many families were forcibly torn apart and their names changed – making studying your heritage even harder. Young children were taken from parents and sold separately. They might even be given separate names, further complicating any genealogy research you might be attempting.
Records were not well kept and even when they are, they are hard to read. The best places to find the names of African-Americans were on receipts of sale. During this era, slaves were listed under their masters in the U.S. census, which separated the races into black, white, or mulatto (a derogatory term for mixed race.)
If you are looking for your forebears in the U.S. census, they will have been listed as little more than half a person. The Three-Fifths compromise in the 1787 constitution counted them as less than their white counterparts.
How the Civil War Affected Surnames
Self-identification is a freedom we often take for granted, but being able to have a name you are proud of is a privilege that many white Americans overlook. We don’t realize what it means to be given a name against your will and have to be called by a name that was assigned to you by a captor.
It was only after the Civil War that many enslaved people in the South were able to choose what to call themselves. There was a rush of people self-identifying after fighting so long for freedom many of them picked biblical names like James or names they recognized like Washington.
After emancipation, more and more Black Americans started self-identifying, choosing their own surnames, and changing up the last names they were given to make them their own. In her article for the Chicago Tribune, Lolly Bowean writes about how her name may be a bastardization of Bowen. Somewhere along her family line, someone likely changed the spelling.
Some self-identified free men took on French names, perhaps to emulate the vibrant Creole culture in Louisiana where black people enjoyed more freedom than other places in the south. Many also gave themselves new names and chose names like James and Martin. The most common last names were English ones, like Johnson, Williams, Jackson, Brown, Jones, Smith, Richardson, and others. In 2011, Washington was even called the blackest name in the country in several op-eds citing the U.S. Census.
Heartbreakingly, some African-Americans still wear their enslaved past in their name. There were those who, after emancipation, took on the same name of their plantation or kept the name given to them by their captors for identification purposes, so they could find other family members from whom were separated against their will.
Black vs African-American
It’s important here to note that not all black people identify as African-American, and the slave trade was not the only way that black people came to the United States. Black is a race that spans nations, and many black people have retained their African last names – it depends on the wave of immigration that brought them to the Americas.
Africa is a huge continent. Originally, many nations had their own naming conventions that were changed after colonizers came in and standardized names to the Western first name-last name structure.
How Waves Of Immigration Affect African-American Last Names
Not all African immigrants came to the US on slave ships. Ethnically African names are prevalent now in many African enclaves whose ancestry does not trace back to the enslaved.
If your last name is more traditionally African, your family probably came over on a different wave of immigration than the “Middle Passage”. It’s possible if your last name is ethnically African that your family came over on one of these waves, which should make it much easier to locate the records of your forebears.
Common African-American Surnames
Many African-American surnames are of English origin. This is because most slaves worked on plantations owned by settlers from England or Scotland, growing cotton or tobacco in the “New World.”
British last names became popular after the Norman conquest and were common by the time of the colonization of America. The names are often derived from patronymics, which means coming from the paternal line, or they could be derived from their occupation, a nickname, or place they lived.
For example, the son of Jack would be called Jackson. A British surname like Smith would mean that somewhere in your heritage your ancestor was a smith. If your name was Hill or Lake, it meant an ancestor lived on a hill or near a Lake. Other names can also be derived from nicknames like Short or Little.
The Most Common Names For African Americans According To the Census
Even today, the census divides up the racial groups into categories like African American, Hispanic, Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Other Pacific Islander. These are the 10 most common African American surnames according to the 2000 census:
- Williams: Williams is a patronymic of English origin of someone with a forebear named William.
- Johnson: This surname is a patronymic of John.
- Smith: A common name of English origin, Smith means someone who works with metal.
- Brown: A common last name derived from an ancestor’s complexion or the color of their hair.
- Jackson: This name is a patronymic of Jack.
- Davis: This name is a patronymic of David.
- Thomas: Thomas is a common surname of biblical origin meaning twin.
- Harris: A patronymic meaning son of Harry.
- Robinson: A patronymic of the name Robin.
- Taylor: Taylor is a surname that comes from the occupation of cutters or tailors.
If you are interested in learning more about your origins, then your surname is a great place to start your genealogy search. However, be prepared for a lot of pain and rage. It’s important to recognize that freedom was hard-won and the legacy of slavery still affects us today.
There are also many factors that will make your search a little difficult. It’s possible your ancestor was not considered a person because of the slave trade. Rather than the census, you’ll have to look in ledgers for receipts – yes, it’s heartbreaking, but it’s also important.
It’s all the more reason that you should get to know your story a little better and perhaps encourage others to do the same. The slave trade and the stain on America’s past are not always discussed thoroughly in school, so it’s up to us to educate ourselves.
Another good place to learn more about your heritage is looking through old photo albums. If you do and come across old photos that require repair, we at Image Restoration Service would be honored to help you on your journey to discovering the past. Our services are easy and affordable – contact us today to get started!