Many African American last names hold weight of Black history (2024)

Oluale Kossula: That’s the name author Zora Neale Hurston used when she greeted Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the transatlantic slave trade and the subject of her nonfiction book “Barracoon.” He was delighted at being addressed by the name his mother gave him, according to Hurston’s account of the hours they spent in 1927 piecing together his life on that balmy summer day in Alabama.

“My name, is not Cudjo Lewis. It Kossula,” he said in Hurston’s book, which was published posthumously in 2018. “When I gittee in Americky soil, Mr. Jim Meather he try callee my name, but it too long, you unnerstand me … Den I say, ‘You callee me Cudjo. Dat do.’”

Kossula’s renaming illustrates the complicated and fraught origins of many Black American surnames. But his experience is not singular; it was the rule. When Africans were enslaved and brought to America, any identifiers that could have tied them to their homeland or families were broken. Naming, particularly after emancipation, was a complex matter influenced by newfound agency, and the reasons behind choosing a particular surname varied. But the conclusion was always informed by a medley of reverence and power.

“To refer to a person by their given name is to recognize the individual as a person,” wrote Reinette F. Jones, a librarian at the University of Kentucky whose research includes Black families and enslavement in the state. “When African Americans gained their freedom from enslavement, they also gained the freedom to name themselves and their children.”

Enslavement, a centurieslong campaign designed to strip its victims of any essence, both erased names and severed family histories. Before emancipation, those fleeing an enslaver would change their name to remain anonymous. After emancipation, once they could formally establish who they were absent of the enslaver’s influence, many Black folks chose the surname Freeman or Freedman. Others went with Washington, Williams, Brown or Johnson — surnames typical before enslavement that remain ubiquitous today. Some newly freed Black folks who could read chose unique names they saw in newspapers despite lacking a connection to that family. Some named themselves after aspirational Black figures like Frederick Douglass.

Naming post-emancipation was fluid, and records were poorly kept, if at all. There are accounts of people having one surname in 1870 and changing it by the next census alongside shifts in spelling as generations went on.

People seemed to feel both the freedom to push aside anything related to enslavers or to keep given surnames because of some connection to them.

Much of what is known about Black surnames come from Civil War records.Formerly enslaved Africans were, typically, enlisted by white military administrators who filled out their initial documents.

Another rich source is the Civil War pension records where veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops often had to explain any name changes to a white special investigator. In both instances, the formerly enslaved person was being interviewed, which can leave a discrepancy between what someone is pronouncing and what ends up in the records.

It gets trickier if the enlistee is known by their enslaver’s last name but identifies themselves differently, said Brandi Brimmer, an associate professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s African, African American and diaspora studies department.

“There’s tremendous variation and pattern,” Brimmer said. “It’s a moment where people who are coming from an oral culture are now having to engage with government bureaucracies and having to engage with surnames that certainly have meaning within their communities, but now have implications.”

Meaghan Siekman, a genealogist of the Newbury Street Press with the New England Historic Genealogical Society, described a case where the individual she researched took a surprising surname. She eventually learned that someone with that last name previously sold their family.

While the family likely adopted the surname, she said, over the course of “a couple of generations, even during slavery,” it became their own.

But it’s a common misunderstanding that newly freed Black folks always took the name of their enslaver. Unless the surname is unique, explained genealogist Kenyatta Berry, that likely wasn’t the case.

“If you know that your ancestors took the last name of their enslaver, what’s the relationship between them and their enslaver?” Berry, who is also the host of “Genealogy Roadshow” on PBS, said. “Did they take that name because they grew up on that plantation? Or is there some type of family relationship to why they chose that surname after emancipation?”

Take Paris Simkins, a South Carolina State lawmaker during Reconstruction, whose father was his enslaver. Berry, who is researching Simkins, said keeping his father’s last name could have been a way to deny his father the ability to wash his hands of how he treated the people he enslaved.

“By having that name and knowing that his father was from one of the prominent families in that county, that was a way to say, ‘You’re not gonna forget that. Even though my mother was sexually assaulted, I’m part of this family,’” she said.

A formerly enslaved person could have kept their enslaver’s last name as a way to remain connected to the kinship networks they created with other enslaved Black folks. Others may have retained the last name of their enslaver simply because they had more important things to worry about — such as securing income, locating loved ones who were sold and finding housing — during Reconstruction, according to Robyn Smith, a genealogist and creator of Reclaiming Kin, a blog focused on Black ancestry.

But it was more common for a previously enslaved person to take their mother or father’s last name depending on which parent they knew, Smith said. If their parents were married, they would take their father’s surname. When enslaved folks were sold or bequeathed through the enslaver’s family, they would, in most cases, only know their mother’s last name. But some would choose a new surname entirely.

“That’s something you have control over,” Berry said. “Before, as a Black woman, you didn’t have control over your own agency of your body. You didn’t have control over whether or not your children would still be there. You didn’t have control over if your husband or partner, that you were with, would be there. And, as a man, you didn’t have control over your family. You couldn’t protect your family as much because everything was at the will of the enslaver.”

“Choosing your surname gives you that power to say, ‘This is what I’m gonna be called from now on,’” she added.

As with so much of Black history of that era, the very real threat of deadly violence also contributed to name changes. While looking through the National Archives in early 2020, Smith found a Civil War pension record for a United States Colored Troops veteran named Abram Sherrod. The special investigator assigned to Sherrod’s claim in the mid-1890s didn’t understand why the man changed his last name to James after the war.

In 1895, Julia Pearson, the wife of a man who served with Sherrod, told the investigator it was a survival tactic.

“I can give the reason for him and many others changing their names,” Pearson told the investigator. “It was for this reason to save their lives in the year of 1867 the CluClux being very bad in Bolivar Co., Mississippi killing all of the old soldiers they could find that had been in the Army. He and many others changed their names to their father’s names to keep from being known.”

Many enslaved people adopted their own last names before emancipation in order to evade capture or to establish their own family connections independent of their enslavers. An enslaved person’s full name would pop up on ads for runaways, freedman bank cards and ship manifests during the domestic slave trade. In one instance Smith found, an enslaver listed the surnames in an estate inventory — a rare occurrence. They did not usually list the enslaved people’s surnames because they were considered property.

Some naming practices demonstrate “that the families were working to stay together even against some of the tides that were trying to rip them apart,” Siekman said. Black folks commonly named their children after other family members. The conditions of enslavement allowed for someone to be sold as many as six times. Naming — whether it was someone’s first or last — was a strategy used by enslaved people to maintain familial ties despite being forcibly separated. In fact, Brimmer noted that finding a family with a range of surnames likely indicated family separation under enslavement.

All of this is part of the story of how free people shaped their lives.

“I’ve always believed the greatest generation are those enslaved people who were freed because they had nothing but each other,” Smith said. “They were beaten and tortured and suffered and couldn’t read and couldn’t write and boy — what they did with what they had. That’s the greatest generation to me.”


Julia Craven

Julia Craven is a freelance reporter.

Many African American last names hold weight of Black history (2024)
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