So over the past two semesters, I’ve been working on a long-term research project on black naming practices in the Alabama Black Belt during the period of slavery. As it turns out, I’ll be presenting some preliminary findings from my research later this month at the Mississippi State University Symposium for History Undergraduate Research (SHUR), April 29-30. I’ll be presenting Saturday morning, April 30, on a panel running from 8:30-9:50. Here’s what I’ll be talking about:
“Are Mose and Minerva Less Distinctive than Lakisha and Jamal? The Use and Abuse of Distinctively Black Names in Slavery and in Freedom”
Charles W. Johnson
Black and white Americans have different names. Names like “Keisha” or “Darnell” are widely and instantly perceived as ‘black,’ and names like “Brad,” “Meredith” and “Todd” as ‘white.’ The perception reflects a statistical reality: white and black Americans’ naming choices do systematically differ. Racialized naming differences can carry social and economic baggage for people with names that are perceived as distinctively black, including discrimination in education and during job searches. Economists such as Fryer and Levitt (2004) or Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004) devote several recent studies to possible causes and consequences of distinctively black naming patterns in the post-Civil Rights era. Yet distinctively black names, and social stigma against them, are not recent developments. In 1870 there were eight men named “Pompey,” or “Pomp” for short, living in Macon County, Alabama. All were black farm-hands, born under the Black Belt’s system of plantation slavery. Local whites included “Leonidas” and “Alexander,” but none were named after Caesar’s rival. “Pompey” was no outlier: in 1870 the Pompeys of Macon County lived alongside Livy Pinckard, Cato Brown, Romulus Dowdell and Remus Rainey – all exclusively black names, never seen among Macon County whites. Generally, the particular names marked as black or white have changed throughout American history, as the period of slavery receded and names like Mose or Minerva were replaced by Lakisha and Jamal. But divergent black and white naming systems are a long-standing, continuous phenomenon of America’s biracial culture, with their earliest roots in conflicts and negotiations between white slaveholders and black slaves over control of naming under slavery.
In this paper I offer a new analysis of quantitative data on naming patterns, based on the 1870 Census for Alabama Black Belt counties. Previous studies of slave naming practices have focused either on single plantations or on distinctive regions such as the South Carolina coast or Caribbean, with comparatively little attention to the Black Belt. Analysis of the Alabama data, using techniques from recent studies on contemporary naming practices, reveals distinctively black naming patterns in the Black Belt and a large pool of distinctively or uniquely African-American names dating back to the period of slavery. Contrary to Herbert Gutman’s suggestion that lexically distinctive black names (e.g. from classical or traditional African sources) were rare or marginal by the late antebellum period, I find that the data from the Black Belt counties demonstrate the persistence of significant, ongoing distinctively or uniquely black naming pools throughout the last decades of slavery and the first decade of emancipation.
Black Belt naming practices reveal elements both of planters’ impositions and slaves’ adaptation and resistance. Moreover, discrimination today against distinctively black names parallel the repetitive rhetorical use and abuse of ‘black’ names in antebellum writing as tropes standing for derisive or stereotyped images of blackness; but their use by freed black Alabamians also reveal the powerful personal and cultural meanings that they conveyed. Distinctively black names under slavery are like scars: visible signs of deep wounds, but also of the body’s effort to adapt and to heal.