Say My Name

An African-American Family History


When I was very young, my maternal grandmother would regale my aunt and me with stories of her past in Tennessee. I listened with one ear, amused but not fascinated. After all, it was ancient history. It took decades for me to realize that those stories weren’t ancient history. They were my history.

      My grandmother and my aunt have since passed away. Among the many things I regret about their passing is the fact that I’ll never be able to ask them questions about my heritage. That is one of the reasons I am writing this book. One day my daughter or grandchild or nephew or cousin will want answers about their history and they won’t have to regret that they waited too long to ask the right questions.

      This book is made up of many parts: part guide to aid in the discovery of your own ancestors; part story of slavery in different American locales; and last but not least, part history of my own family. This will always be a work in progress--a work of many lifetimes. Most importantly, this is a memorial to all the people who have passed on. As long as someone says their name, they live on.

The First Step

The first step in this journey is self-examination. What do you know about your own mother and father? If you are fortunate to have one or both still living, begin this journey by asking them questions. This is not always as simple as it seems. Many families hide secrets. If parents aren’t forthcoming or not available, ask other relatives. Find the oldest one and ask questions about your parents and grandparents. It would be helpful if you record them so that you can go over what they say. That way you won’t miss important details.

       I was helped in my initial investigation by my aunt Carolyn Warren,  my mother’s youngest sister. Carolyn had the advantage of hearing my grandmother’s stories day in and day out. She also lived in Atlanta when she began her research. That was important because our family roots were in Tennessee, not far from there. She was able to visit Tennessee often and found documents and records about Solomon Koonce, a slave born around 1826 who was my maternal grandmother’s great-grandfather. He lived for at least a hundred years, fathered many children and left a legacy of family unity that made it easier to follow that particular genealogical trail. Solomon is one of the oldest Black ancestor I have been able to find to date.

      Although Carolyn found a great deal of information about Solomon and his offspring, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know who his parents were and who was the mother of his first set of children. Carolyn gave up after documenting her findings. She didn’t want to research the other family surnames. I wanted to prove I could find out more than she did in a sort of relative rivalry.

      Another good place to start is with birth and death records. Birthplace and parents’ names are included on these records. This is important. This will tell you which locale to begin your search in the census records.

      In the beginning, I assumed it would be easy to find information concerning ancestors with unusual names. That was a misconception. My relatives proved hard to track down even with their unusual names. No famous or notorious individual grew on my family tree. They all led unassuming lives making it very difficult to find information about their quiet existence.

    Another misconception was that all the data found on the census was completely accurate. I now know that people lied, exaggerated or fabricated answers to the census taker’s questions. The need for accuracy was not a premium as it is for today’s generation. You must judge each bit of information against the oral legends and other facts that you garner. Also remember some people were not counted. It happens even today.

What's In a Name?

You’re eager to get started looking for your ancestors. You’re hoping to find someone famous or rich or unusual in your gene pool. You strike pay dirt right away on the 1930 census or 1920 census. You found a familiar name. You think ‘this is easy.’ Then you start looking at the 1800’s census and that brick wall smacks you in the face. Welcome to the name game.

Slave Names

     The name game began for African Americans even before they reached America's shore. When Africans were kidnapped or bought, their names were also appropriated. Some Africans were renamed on the ship before they even arrived at their American destination. However, in most cases, newly acquired slaves were renamed by their owners. You may recall the scene from Alex Haley’s television mini-series “Roots” where Kunte Kinte was redubbed Toby.

      There were several trends used in naming slaves. One of the most popular ones was to give the slave a Biblical name such as my ancestor’s name Solomon. This was in keeping with many slave owners’ desire to convert their “wards” to Christianity. This desire may seem contradictory to the act of owning humans but in the context of the time and in the minds of some owners, they believed that if it wasn’t for them, no matter what the mercenary reason they had crossed paths with these “heathens,” the souls of these unfortunate people would have been condemned to hell. What was closer to the truth was that it was an easy rationale to justify such an abominable institution. It was salve for their own souls and made it easier for them to continue this lifestyle in their minds.

      Another trend in naming slaves was to use demeaning names. This was a psychological ploy to put their property in their place--several steps below the masters. For example, many slaves were given prestigious, lofty names like Plato, Hercules, Romeo or Aphrodite. In my family tree there is a Cinderella, a Christopher Columbus and Narcissus. These names were actually jokes, poking fun at the slaves’ lack of power.

      When slaves were given popular names, they were usually diminutive versions  like my great-grandmother’s name Tildy, short for Matilda. Or they were given pet names like Buck, Red or Queenie. In other words, these were nicknames that one may give a child or a pet. It was a reflection of how the slave owners saw their property.

      In spite of all these negative psychological tricks, the slave owners did not have complete control over the naming of their slaves. In the case of newborn slave children, the parents were usually in charge of the names. Still certain names were forbidden to be used especially after the different slave revolts. Nat became one of these forbidden names because of Nat Turner and his almost successful rebellion. Some slaves substituted Moses in place of Nat to honor him.

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