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‘They Choose a Name For Themselves’ – Surnames in Slavery and Freedom

In Western culture, our surnames are traditionally handed down along a patrimonial line. If Your father was a Smith, you are a Smith – if you are male, then your children will also be Smiths. While this was how it worked for most of European society, it was not allowed to cross over to the slaves held by that society.

Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree, and changed her name several years after escaping to freedom.
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree, and changed her name several years after escaping to freedom.

And yet, former slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman all had surnames. In fact, nearly every slave freed, whether by pre-war emancipation or the Fourteenth Amendment, had one. But if slaves were not given surnames by their masters, how did this come about?

The common thought is that slaves simply took the names of their masters, at least upon attaining their freedom. If a slave named John was owned by a master with the last name of Anderson, then he was John Anderson. Though this was indeed common, it was far from how it always worked – especially during Abolition.

Before Surnames

When African slaves were brought to the new world, they were given first names to use in place of their birth names. Generally speaking, African names were never even recorded in the ledgers of the slave traders. In all likelihood, they simply didn’t bother with them. The tongue was strange and, apart from dealing with African traders (who had learned to deal in broken English), there was no point in learning it. 1Joseph Boskin Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester (Oxford University Press, 1986.

Cross-section of a 1700s slave ship.
Cross-section of a 1700s slave ship.

“I suppose they all had names in their own dialect,” mused Edward Manning, a sailor of the 1860s, “but the effort required to pronounce them was too much for us, so we picked out our favorites and dubbed them ‘Main-stay,’ ‘Cat-head,’ ‘Bull’s-Eye,’ ‘Rope-yarn,’ and various other sea phrases.”

Manning was speaking of African slaves who would be drafted to help on the slave ships. The bulk of them, however, went unnamed. There was simply no reason to name them. 2Edward Manning Six Months on a Slaver in 1860 (Harper & Brothers, 1879) – as quoted in George Francis Dow Slave Ships and Slaving (Dover Publications, 2013) 295.

At its most-benevolent, and only for the sake of bookkeeping, slave traders renamed millions of Africans, jotting down Biblical names such as “Andrew,” or “Thomas” in their ledgers. Since so many died along the passage, these names were often not given until the arrival in the new world.

Once established as slaves in the American colonies, the enslavers had the right to give them any name they wished. Almost without exception, they were given but a single name. For the sake of court records, when a surname was needed, more often than not, the color of their skin or simply “Negro” was used. Children born into slavery were often named by their mothers, though the masters had the final say. A surname, however, being unnecessary, was never given. 3Boskin 29-30.

With the slave population exploding all across the new world, England began to realize that surnames were incredibly important, at least for the sake of bookkeeping. In Trinidad, controlled by the Empire, “the name of the superior relation” was often given as the surname. When no such relation existed, slaves were often handed whatever names the slave traders and owners cared to give them. Surnames such as Infamie, Demoralisation, Chagrin, and Misere were all common on the islands. Though the names were legal, they were probably carried no farther than the ledgers. 4B.W. Higman Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834 (The Press University of the West Indies, 1995) 15-16.

If a black American – free or slave – took a surname, it was unlikely to be respected by the majority of whites. In countless newspaper articles, black people were referred to usually by their first names. If any reference to the surname was mentioned, it was often noted that the slave “called himself John Edwards.” Or in the case of advertising for a runaway, the ad might read: “negro fellow by the name of GEORGE, but calls himself GEORGE LEWIS.” In a similar case, an enslaver was looking for his slave named Ben who “calls himself Ben Sharp.” 5Gad J. Heuman The Slavery Reader (Routledge, 2003) 348.

For the most part, it was left up to the slaves themselves to decide whether or not they would give themselves surnames – the enslavers didn’t really care. Surnames among the slaves were most popular in areas which had the most stability. Large plantations in the Mississippi River Valley, as well as along the Georgia and South Carolina Coasts saw slaves actually being able to hand down names to their children. Rarely did slaves use the name of their masters in this regard. Curiously, slaves would often take the name of a nearby family of enslavers who they believed provided better treatment for their slaves. 6Eugene D. Genovese Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Vintage Books, 1976) 445-446.

Of Names and Titles

Robert Smalls, a former slave, who after the war became a South Carolina Senator, was interviewed and asked about slave names.

“If you ask a colored man his name,” asked the interviewer, “he will always give his Christian name, and if you ask his other name he will always hesitate about giving it – what is the cause of that?”

Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls

“Well,” replied Smalls, “they are apt to go by the one name and when the white folks speak of them they say, ‘John, that belongs to Mr. So and So,’ and they hardly ever use their title. But among themselves they use their titles. Very few take their fathers’ names – they choose a name for themselves. A father may be named Smalls and his son Bennett. Before their masters they do not speak of their titles at all.” 7As printed in John W. Blassingame Slave Testimony (Louisiana State University, 1977) 374.

Titles were surnames to an extent, but not the extent to which they were used by white families. Titles were held almost in secret. While slaves were often known as, for instance, William Pettigrew’s Moses, to denote ownership, they kept for themselves other names, titles.

Writing of his father, former slave Jacob Stroyer remembered:

“I only know that he stated that Col. Dick Singleton gave him the name of William, by which he was known up to the day of his death. Father had a surname, Stroyer, which he could not use in public, as the surname Stroyer would be against the law; he was known only by the name of William Singleton, because that was his master’s name. So the title Stroyer was forbidden him, and could be used only by his children after the emancipation of the slaves.”

Stroyer explained that enslavers disallowed their slaves to select their own last names because “to allow him to use his own name would be sharing an honor which was due only to his master, and that would be too much for a negro, said they, who was nothing more than a servant.” 8Jacob Stroyer My Life in the South (Salem Observer Book and Job Print, 1885) 16. Here.

A New Name of Freedom

These titles were not legally binding. Legally, the slaves had no surnames. It was only upon emancipation when they gained a legal name. On top of this, the newly-freed slaves often wanted to strike out on their own. They wished for, as it were, a new birth in this freedom.

Part of this new birth was a new name. In his autobiography, Booker T. Washington, born into slavery in 1856, explained that newly-emancipated slaves felt compelled to change their names.

“In some way a feeling got among the coloured people that it was far from property for them to bear the surname of their former owners,” explained the historian, “and a great many of them took other surnames. This was one of the first signs of freedom.” 9Booker T. Washington Up From Slavery (Doubleday, 1901) 23-4.

Henry Bibb kept his surnames, though it's origin is unclear.
Henry Bibb kept his surname, though it’s origin is unclear.

The change of name, though seen as necessary to the newly-freed citizen, was often confusing for those he left behind – even if it was not a change in surname. Henry Bibb had escaped from slavery and went on to publish a book about his life. Some time later, Bibb sent a copy to his former owner, William Gatewood. In the correspondence which followed, Gatewood confessed to having no idea who Henry Bibb was, but did know someone named Walton H. Bibb.

“I am happy to inform you that you are not mistaken in the man you sold as property, and received pay for as such,” came Bibb’s reply. “But I thank God that I am not property now, but as regarded as a man like yourself …. If you should ever chance to be traveling this way, and will call on me, I will use you better than you did me while you held me as a slave.”

In Bibb’s case, because his last name was not that of his former owner’s, he probably saw no reason to change it. Yet, that desire to rename himself in freedom was still present. 10Henry Bibb Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb (New York: Published by the Author, 1850) 175-6. Here.

Though confusing to former masters, it was equally confusing to former slaves, especially young children in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Elizabeth Hyde Botume, a teacher and missionary from the North, had traveled South in 1863 to head a school for newly-freed children. On her first day at the head of the class, both she and her pupils had a small problem of communication when she asked for the name of one of her students.

“It is Phyllis, ma’am.”

“But what is your other name?”

“Only Phyllis, ma’am.”

I then explained that we all have two names; but still she replied, “Nothing but Phyllis, ma’am.”

Upon this an older girl started up and exclaimed, “Pshaw, gal! What’s you’m title?” whereupon she gave the name of her old master.

After this each child gave two names, most of them funny combinations. Sometimes they would tell me one thing, and when asked to repeat it, would say something quite different. The older children would frequently correct and contradict the younger ones. I know now that they manifested much ingenuity in invention or selection of names and titles. One boy gave his name as Middleton Heywood, shouting it out as if it were something he had caught and might lose. Whereupon another boy started up, saying angrily, “Not so, boy. You ain’t Massa Middie’s boy. I is.”

A freedmen’s school known as James’ Plantation School in North Carolina.
A freedmen’s school known as James’ Plantation School in North Carolina.

Botume went on to narrate how this ritual went on for days, with her forty students giving forty different names each time role was called.

“In time I began to get acquainted with some of their faces. I could remember that ‘Cornhouse’ yesterday was ‘Primus’ today. That ‘Quash’ was ‘Bryan.’ He was already denying the old sobriquet, and threatening to ‘mash your mouf in,’ to any one who called him Quash.”

It was later explained to her that these were “basket names,” as the former slaves called them. “Nem’seys [namesakes] gives folks different names.” 11Elizabeth Hyde Botume First Days Amongst The Contrabands (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1893) 46-7, 48. Here.

While Botume would sort out her students’ names in time, after the war, every black citizen needed to decide upon a surname. All understood just how important it would be. Especially for those with families, this would be the name that would be carried on for generations.

In an apocryphal story, Helen E. Brown related how one former slave selected his name. A Union army officer asked the slave for his name. “John,” was the reply.

“John what?”

“I’m Colcheter Lenox’s John,” was the reply, “I’ve no other name.”

“John Lenox, then, I shall call you from this time forward for ever. Remember, will you?”

“Oh, no, master lieutenant, please don’t put that down … I’ve objections to that … It will always make me think of the old ways, sir, and I’m a free man now, sir….”

“Suppose we call you John Freeman, then.” 12Helen E. Brown Freeman John and His Family (1864) 20-21. In Elizabeth Regosin Freedom’s Promise (University Press of Virginia, 2002).

African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters.
African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters.

References   [ + ]

Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.