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Post-Civil War Negro Naming

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There was a connection between the freeing of the slaves and the ancient African concept of “death and resurrection.” Based on the god-man story of Osiris, this African savior-god “made men and women to be born again.” As a god-man, he suffered, he died, rose again, and reigned eternally in heaven.

Africans believed that they, by living a good life, would inherit eternal life -- just as Osiris had done. Certain groups, like the Fon (Kwa speakers of Benin) and Yoruba (coastal West Africa), enacted these scenarios in the training and activities of mediums serving divinations.

The idea of spiritual renewal was about the candidates shedding their former personalities, at least ritually and symbolically, and embracing new personalities dedicated to the service of their divinities and communities. Being born anew necessitated the taking of new names.

So it was with the freed African American slaves. Prior to emancipation, many Slave owners, especially in Tennessee, applied their surnames to slaves. In Missouri, as explained in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, a naming pattern went like this: “If Mr. Harbison owned a slave named Bull, Tom would have spoken of him as “Harbison’s Bull; but a son or a dog of that name was ‘Bull Harbison.’”

Although outwardly acknowledging the slave master’s surnames, many slaves secretly had their own meaningful surnames. Those names immediately came to light when they were freed in 1865. The reason was an unspoken resentment among these slaves not to bear the surnames of their former owners. In the Carolina rice country, scarcely any Negro chose the name of his/her former owner. By shedding their slave owner’s surnames, the newly freed slaves took a first step toward mental freedom.

In fact, throughout slavery, many had gone through complex and secret ways to reaffirm their original names, identities, family names, and memories of family members. For example, more than a third of all slave children were named for their fathers.

Grandparents accounted for almost as many names as mothers and fathers. These and other namings like them helped link slaves to their ancestors and contemporaries. Much of this information was kept on the blank pages of the family Bible. In addition, renaming themselves helped sever psychological bonds to their former slave owners and shift their mindset away from being considered as chattel (moving property).

That simple shift in mindset had profound effects on the new ex-slaves life-shaping decision-making. Still, they needed all the help they could get because of being overwhelmed by the problems associated with freedom - for which they had absolutely no preparation. Apart from being simply physically free by law, none had any possessions, money, help, or direction.

Their tiny bit of “renaming” mental freedom caused them to focus on getting an education as the only way out. Thus they crowded schools everywhere. To enter school, they suddenly needed surnames. In order of decreasing frequency, the more common names they chose were:

Smith, Johnson, Brown, Williams, Jones, Miller, Davis, Wilson, Anderson, Thomas, Moore, Taylor, Martin, Thompson, White, Jackson, Harris, Clark, Lewis Hall, Allen, Young, Robinson, Walker, Nelson, and Washington. Incidentally, a most remarkable statistic is that in two decades Negro illiteracy had dropped from 96% to 57% and, by 1940, down to 9%.

The fact that African Americans in the post slavery era knew that the only way to be set free and to overcome the destruction to their humanity, self-concept, and self-esteem was to acquire an education remains as applicable today.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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