Numerous historical sources confirm that enslaved people had surnames that they used among themselves and in many cases were known by their slaveholder. However, the common practice by slaveholders was to only use the given names of enslaved people in documents such as estate papers, court and deed records. This causes many researchers to wrongly conclude that enslaved people did not have surnames until after emancipation, which was not the case.
There was often a fluidity to the surnames that enslaved people had and if we think about the diverse circumstances that the tragedy of slavery created, we can, I think, understand the reasons why. Enslaved people suffered constant sale, where children were frequently torn away from parents at young ages and spouses were often separated. Enslaved women were raped, creating children with white fathers who in most cases did not claim them and even sold them away. Lastly, emancipation itself often provoked many to choose new surnames, one of the many freedoms freedmen and women practiced.
We can also see in runaway ads how many slaveholders knew the surnames of their slaves. They often used the strange phrase “he calls himself” in the ads:
“Ran away from the subscriber on the 25th of October, a well set dark mulattoe man named Jem, but calls himself James Ferguson….”
You can find many more examples of the above in my post, The Mind of the Slaveowner.
Far and away the most common case I have seen is that enslaved people initially used the surname of either their mother or their father, if they knew what those names were. Now, that parent’s surname could very well be the surname of the most recent slaveholder or an earlier slaveholder. And even though slave marriages were not legal, many enslaved people followed the practice of the wife taking her husband’s surname:
“My mother was named Mary Bradley and my father was named Hilliard Bradley. Bradley was the last man owned ’em. Of course my mother wasn’t a Bradley ‘fore she married. She was a Murphy.”
There are a wide array of sources that provide us with slave surnames, from the slave narratives and interviews, to freedman’s bank cards, runaway ads and Southern Claims Commission records. By far the largest source must be the Civil War pension records of the almost 200,000 black men who served in the US Army and Navy. Proving their identity as former soldiers often revealed some of the most detailed explanations for former slaves’ choice of surnames.
Because I like to let formerly enslaved people speak for themselves, here are several examples of freedmen and women discussing their surnames. Some of these come from the wonderful book, Voices of Emancipation:
“I served [in the War] as Henry Lock, the Lock being my old Massa’s name but since the War I have taken name of Rollie.”
“[Edward] was owned by Drury Stovall and went by the name of Edward Stovall. He was sold to my master William Orr and he always went by the name Edward Orr after that.”
“My father’s name was Gilbert Jackson, and after I was set free I took the name of my father, and have been known by the name Smith Jackson. I took the name of Jackson for the reason that I preferred to go by my father’s name, rather than the name of my last owner.”
“I was born…the child of Phillis Houston, slave of Sol Smith. When I was born my mother was known as Phillis Smith and I took the name of Smith too. I was called mostly Lewis Smith till after the war, although I was named Dick Lewis Smith… After the War, I was wearing the name Lewis Smith, but I found the negroes were taking the names of their fathers, like the white folks. My mother then told me my father’s name was John Barnett, a white man, and I took up the name Barnett.”
“My mother’s name was Jane and she was called Jane Nunn because she belonged to the Nunns. My father’s name was John Crosby and he lived in the town of Geneva, Alabama…I had two brothers and one sister. They were Nelson Nunn and George Nunn and they may have changed their names to Crosby too because they were my father’s children.”
The quote below, from a Southern Claims Commission file, is one of the most powerful and one of my favorites:
“ I enlisted under Ross because that was my father’s name. I am generally called Cap Sherrod but I was married under Cap Ross and have voted under the name Ross…A good many people call me Cap Sherrod because I belonged to Sherrod but I calls myself Cap Ross.”
Cap’s statement implies that choosing his own surname was a part of exercising his newfound freedom. To be able to decide that he didn’t want to be known as Cap Sherrod–to vote and marry under his choice of names–was him claiming his new identity as a freedman and a citizen.
And this example from another pension file shows how even the given name of this enslaved woman was held under little regard:
Testimony of Mollie Russell (widow of Phillip Fry), September 19, 1911:
Q. Tell me the name you were called before you met Phillip Fry?
A. Lottie Smith was my name and what they called me before I met Phillip and was married to him.
Q. Who called you by that name and where was it done?
A. I was first called by that name in the family of Col. Morrow in whose service I was in Louisville, Ky., just after the war. I worked for him as nurse for his children, and my full and correct name was OCTAVIA, but the family could not “catch on” to that long name and called me “LOTTIE” for short. LOTTIE had been the name of the nurse before me and so they just continued that same name. I was called by that name all the time I was with the Morrows. . . .
Q. Besides the Morrows, whom else did you live with in Louisville?
A. Mr. Thomas Jefferson of Louisville, bought me when I was three years of age from Mr. Dearing. I belonged to him until emancipation. They called me “OCK”. They cut it off from OCTAVIA. It was after emancipation on that I went back to work for Col. Morrow and where I got the name “Lottie,” as already explained. I liked the name better than Octavia, and so I took it with me to Danville, and was never called anything else there than that name. . . .
Q. Where did you get the maiden name of Smith from?
A. My mother’s name was Octavia Smith and it was from her that I got it but where the name came from to her I never knew. I was only three years old when she died. No, I don’t know to whom she belonged before she was brought from Virginia to Kentucky.
One thing we should keep in mind is that the practice of referring to enslaved people by a given name only was a part of the attempt of the system of slavery to dehumanize them..to “other” them. You’ll often see the word “degraded” used in the historical references…these were all attempts at “degradation.” I found one very rare example of a slaveholder’s inventory, that lists the slaves along with their surnames.
What remains utterly amazing to me is that in the worst of circumstances, and in spite of every attempt to smash any idea that slaves were anything other than commodities, slaveholders did not succeed. Enslaved people resisted in ways large and small. They ran away, fought back, feigned illness, destroyed tools, and clung to their families. When they were sold away they remembered their loved ones and they created extended kinship networks. They established and held on to their own cultural traditions in the small spaces that slavery afforded them.
I hope this discussion helps those researching formerly enslaved people, and moreover I hope it helps us to think about how the surnames they had were connected to their experiences in slavery. An enslaved child sold away from their parents at a young age to the Deep South would probably have a different sense of naming than enslaved children who were able to grow up in the presence of their parents and extended family. Length of time spent with a particular owner is also a likely factor. My ancestor Margaret Barnes, technically a free woman, nevertheless was under the control of the white Barnes family in Tennessee. In 1850, she is listed in the census with presumably the name she was born with–Margaret Roberts–yet by 1860, after living with the Barnes family since the age of 8, she was by then called Margaret Barnes. Was this a conscious choice on her part? I may never know.
Please share, in the comments below, examples you have come across of the surnames of enslaved people, especially if it was different from their last slaveholder.