What’s In A Name?
Black History is American History. And American History is Black History. Those two things cannot be disentangled, nor should they. I always welcome Black History month, but I hope we get to a point in time when we are teaching enough about both the historical contributions of Black Americans and how the race has played a role in the growth of our nation, that we do not need a special month to call out Black History.
Until we get to that point, I have always found that the more I learn and the more I listen, the more I appreciate our unique and shared experiences and histories. A topic I learned about back in one of my Black History classes in college that I wanted to share was the history of surnames for Black Americans - a topic that had never crossed my mind until that class. We learned that when Black Americans were held as slaves they either did not have surnames or were given the surnames of their owners, but for multiple reasons, where not entitled to their own surnames (this is a whole other topic I could write on). During emancipation, for the most part, these ex-slaves picked brand new last names, as they had no family names (most had lost connections to family lineage and names). The last names chosen can still be seen in last name patterns today. According to the 2000 U.S. Census1, the top 5 last names with the highest percentage of Black Americans are: 1) Washington (90% of people with that last name are black); 2) Jefferson (75% of people with that last name are black); 3) Booker (66% of people with that last name are black); 4) Banks (54% of people with that last name are black); 5) Jackson (53% of people with that last name are black). Historians say that this shows, “There was a lot more consciousness and pride in American history among African Americans and enslaved African Americans than a lot of people give them credit for. They had a very strong sense of politics and history,” says Adam Goodheart, a professor at Washington College and author of the forthcoming “1861: Civil War Awakening. 2
Booker T. Washington himself spoke about obtaining the last name Washington in his autobiography, Up From Slavery.
"Before going to school it had never occurred to me that it was needful or appropriate to have an additional name. When I heard the school-roll called, I noticed that all of the children had at least two names, and some of them indulged in what seemed to me the extravagance of having three… By the time the occasion came for the enrolling of my name, an idea occurred to me which I thought would make me equal to the situation; and so, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him “Booker Washington,” as if I had been called by that name all my life; and by that name I have since been known.”
I hope learning more about Black History helps you appreciate how we all have unique paths, stories and histories. Taken together, they define being American and American history.
- US Census Bureau, 2000 Census
- The Seattle Times Jesse Washington “Washington: The ‘blackest name’ in America” February 20, 2011