Disclaimer: Most of this post was taken from my 2012 article entitled, “Ain’t Gonna Take Massa’s Name.” Because of the popularity of the topic and misunderstandings about the surnames of African Americans, I am reposting this segment of that article here.
When Africans were forcibly taken from Africa and transported to the Americas, their freedom was not only eradicated, but they were systematically stripped of their African heritages. English colonies developed a series of laws to define chattel slavery in America, which included the outlawing of African religious rituals, the banning of the use of drums, and the barring of African languages. The children of Africa entered the New World with names that represented their family heritage in their homeland. However, the vast majority of those names were replaced with European names forced upon them by slave traders. Only an exceedingly small percentage of enslaved Africans were able to retain African names.
The enforcement of the use of those European names was depicted in the 1977 movie, Roots. In a tearful scene, Kunte Kinte was brutally whipped for refusing to take his given name, Toby. As Africans acclimated to the abhorrent life situations that were forced upon them by American chattel slavery, they and the successive generations began to establish their identity in the New World by adopting surnames, especially after the Civil War.
One of the most common and often erroneous presumptions is that when enslaved African Americans were emancipated during and after the Civil War, a vast majority retained the surnames of their last enslavers. Many freed African Americans not only chose different surnames after slavery, but many had surnames on farms and plantations that were concealed from most slave-owners. In The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, historian Herbert Gutman quoted the following from the 1865 diary of Eliza Frances Andrews, a slave-owner’s daughter in Georgia:
“I notice that the negroes seldom or never take the names of the present owners in adopting their ‘entitles’ as they call their own surnames, but always that of some former master, and they go back as far as possible.” (pg. 256)
I researched the slave narratives of Mississippi to test Eliza Andrews’ observation. My research findings appear to corroborate her claim to a degree. Eighty-one African American men from Mississippi were interviewed with only two of the interviewees not disclosing the name of their last enslaver. Of the 79 men who disclosed their last enslavers’ full or last names, 57% of them did not take their surnames. These are the results of my findings:
In a similar study, Gutman investigated the slave narratives for the states of South Carolina and Texas. He found from those narratives that emancipated African Americans from those two states or their parents had often either retained or chosen surnames different from their last enslavers. From the interviews of 181 African Americans in South Carolina, nearly three out of four had different surnames. In Texas, two out of three African Americans who were interviewed chose different surnames. These were Gutman’s results:
As the number of their public transactions increased after 1865, the surnames of many once-enslaved African Americans had to be written into a record – whether as depositors in one of the Freedmen’s Banks, as signers or X-markers on a labor contract, as interviewees of the 1870 census enumerator, or as couples getting married by a county clerk. An in-depth research of these records, as well as the genealogy research of many African American families, will show that many desired to take a surname that differed from their last enslaver.
For example, John & Anna Burnett left Abbeville County, South Carolina shortly before the Civil War and settled on land situated on the Tate/Panola County, Mississippi line. They brought my mother’s 2X-great-grandparents, Jack & Flora, and their children with them. They chose the surname Davis. My father’s great-grandfather, Peter Belton of Warren County, Mississippi, was the only Belton in the county after slavery. No white Belton families ever resided in the county or any of the surrounding counties during slavery, hence the continued mystery of why he took that surname.
These revelations dispel the myth that the surname of an African American most likely represents the surname of the owner whose farm our ancestors resided on at the time of Emancipation. In registers that recorded 360 marriages at Davis Bend, Mississippi in 1864-1865, only a few of the enslaved carried the names Quitman, Jefferson, and Davis, the surnames of the prominent Davis Bend planters. FamilySearch.org even posits that only about 15% of freed African Americans took their last enslavers’ surname. Their derivation of this statistic was not posted. Nonetheless, the desire of most to detach themselves from their last enslavers by rejecting their surnames undoubtedly symbolized the independence that they longed to have for many generations.