What’s in a Name?

In Africa

In West African society, names were extremely important and therefore carefully chosen.  Names could identify a person’s place in his family, his relationship with God, or the belief that he resembled an ancestor.  For example in Nigeria, Olabisi means beloved first daughter, Olufunmilayo means God gives me joy and Babatunde means the grandfather has returned.  Naming ceremonies were celebratory occasions at which the newborn’s name was revealed to the entire community. The child was reminded by family and community members of his responsibility to live in a manner that did not tarnish the name he had been given.  These practices also existed in Kenya, in East Africa where our 44th President has roots.  Barack means blessing/blessed, Hussein means handsome and Obama means the bent one, descriptive of an ancestor with a physical deformity.  

During Slavery

Where slavery was prevalent, many enslaved people did not officially have surnames.  They were known by their first names or as possessions of the enslaver, as in Tyler’s George or Jefferson’s Sally.  Although enslaved people used surnames, these were within their community and rarely recognized by the majority culture.  

Enslaved people chose their surnames in order to maintain connections with family members.  For example, if Victoria’s father was enslaved by Mr. Simmons and her mother by Mr. Gross, she would want to be known as Victoria Simmons, recognizing her connection to her father.  At the place where she was enslaved however, she would likely be known as Gross’s Victoria or simply Victoria.

After Emancipation

When slavery ended and the rights and benefits of citizenship became available to people of African descent, the formerly enslaved either revealed the surnames they had used for years or chose new names for themselves.  Many, for obvious reasons, chose the surname Freeman. Contrary to popular believe, not all of the formerly enslaved chose the surname name of the person who enslaved them when Emancipation came. Historian Herbert Gutman argues that in an effort to maintain family connections and possibly reunite with relatives from whom they had been separated, enslaved people frequently took the name of the enslaver of the earliest ancestor they could identify.  That is to say that if siblings Roland and Ella were enslaved by Joseph Smith but they knew their grandfather had been enslaved by Robert Jones, they might choose the surname Jones. If Roland was sold to Andrew Brown and his sister Ella to Melvin Crockett, they might choose the name Jones in the hope of reconnection at a future date

Freedmen also adopted European naming patterns, selecting names that indicated the work they had performed:  Farmer, Cooper, Cook and Smith (for blacksmith). Physical descriptions such as Short, Long or Brown could be chosen as could residence as in Hill or River.  There was also the tradition of identifying a person’s father by incorporating his name such as son of John (Johnson) or son of Harry (Harrison). Another pattern adopted from Europeans was giving a son his mother’s maiden name as a first name:  Marjorie Chapman married George Tyler and they named their son Chapman Tyler. When Lucy Tyler and her husband, Thornton White, had a son he was named Tyler White.  


In recent years, some of these traditional naming patterns are no longer adhered to and African Americans have been extremely creative in their choice of names.  A daughter of John and Denise is known as Johnise. Travon and Janice’s son is Travanis and Nevaeh is Heaven . . . backwards. I wonder what impact our creativity may have on the efforts of future genealogists.   

Donna Tyler Hollie©