Say My Name

An African-American Family History

Finding Names on the Census

     Since slaves were considered property, their names are usually not mentioned on the census before 1870. Slavery was a very controversial political issue during the early 1800’s. This issue leaked over to the census. The slave census had been conducted since 1820 when census takers collected information on slaves held. The census for 1820, 1830 and 1840 were very basic for all individuals in the United States. The only name included was that of the property-owning head of the family. All other information was little more than numbers.

      This changed in 1850. For that census, “the name of every person who usual abode on 1 June 1850 was with this family” was to be listed. The age, sex, color, occupation, as well as birth place was to be included. However, there was a heated debate in congress over the idea of listing the names of the slaves.

      The northern representatives in Congress proposed that the same information be collected on slaves as was to be collected on free persons. New York Congressman William Seward, an opponent against slavery, even proposed that the 1850 census include information on the number of children born to slave females. It met with strong opposition from Southern congressmen. They feared the collection of such data would add more fuel to the debate against slavery and aid the abolitionists’ cause. They offered counter amendments that removed from the census any information other than age, sex and color of each slave. This amendment was accepted and the 1860 census followed suit.

      1How easy the search for African American ancestors would have been if Seward’s proposal had passed. Instead, the actions of the United States Congress 150 years still hinder the efforts of genealogists and other researchers in their efforts to locate slave ancestors.

After the Civil War

After the Civil War, the name game remained tricky. You may believe, as I did, that the surnames of your ancestors came from the last slave owner before emancipation. This, however, was not the case is the majority of freed persons. Some historians believe that only 15% of the newly freed Americans kept their slave owners’ surnames. For some slaves, the different names occurred even before emancipation. Records from as early as 1720 indicate that slaves often had surnames different from their owners’ names. Sometimes the surnames were changed when the slaves were sold to new owners. Sometimes they were not.

      Some freed individuals chose the surname of their original slave owner. Others chose the name of their favorite owner. Sometimes ex-slaves picked the names Lincoln or Freedman to celebrate their new status. Others picked arbitrary names for various reasons. It all lends toward making it difficult to track down Black ancestors.

      There are several examples of this in my family. According to the oral tradition, my paternal great-great grandfather John Alexander chose that surname rather than the slave owner’s name Huffman. Alexander was the name my great-great grandmother Catherine Alexander used.

      Some of my Koonce relatives chose the surname Cherry. Even more disconcerting is the possibility that my Warren and Cotten surnames were chosen arbitrarily. I searched the census records for family members on the late 1800 census records. Their names don’t appear until late or in one case, the 1900’s. Of course, there is a possibility that they were not counted but there are several coincidences that point to them having a different surname than the one we have now.

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