From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)
KY Top Names.pdf
Black Names in Kentucky.pdf

Black Names, Kentucky

(start date: 1750  -  end date: 1940) 
Written by Reinette F. Jones. March 8, 2020.

When enslaved Africans were brought to the United States, they were given new names that were mostly English and depending on the region, some Dutch, French and Spanish. There was no debate about the names being appropriate or not. There continued to be no debate when the children of the enslaved Africans were also given these European names. For about 300 years, slave owners and enslaved Africans and those who were free, all continued to give both children and adults these types of names that were sometimes customized, transmogrified, and instilled with pride according to the liking and spelling of those doing the naming. And all was well until the start of the 20th Century when "Colored Names" were no longer just names, but rather strange and uncommon adulterations that needed to be studied. In 1920, there was the research of N. N. Puckett titled Unusual Names, as Collected by Newbell Niles Puckett; and N. C. Chappell, "Negro names," American Speech, v.4, no.4 (April 1929), pp.272-275. 

In the 1930s, there was Some Curious Negro Names by Arthur Palmer Hudson. The 1950 title, The Story of Our Names by Elsdon C. Smith, includes an attempt to explain how Christian influence was not always enough to tame the primitive nature of Negroes when naming their children. By the 1960s, during the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Pride Movements, the name of the race was in question, as well as the names of Afro-Americans. The wave of change was a major topic of debate and part of the racial unrest. A Black person's name fell somewhere between not Black enough or too Black. This debate moved into the academic realm and into mass media where "Black Names" have been glorified, uplifted, dissected, scrutinized, psychoanalyzed, and criticized.

[Sources: Afro-American or Negro: correlation between name preference and social-political perspective (thesis) by James Edward Parsons; "Black America, Africa, and world. What is our name in USA," The Racine Star, v.2, no.1,  09/25/1971, p.5, supplement to The Greater Milwaukee Star and Your Greater Milwaukee Star; Askia Muhammad, "Reject "slave" names," Chicago Metro News, 01/17/1976, p.18; Margena A. Christian, "The Importance of a name," Jet, 08/07/2006, pp.24-27; Black Names edited by J. L. Dillard; and Rhetorics of Names and Naming edited by S. M. Vanguri.]
With all of the debate over the years, not much has changed with the last names of African Americans. Today, the most common African American surnames are still Williams, Johnson, Smith, and Jones, according to the 2000 U.S. Census and the 2010 U.S. Census. The names are the same as the top surnames in the United States: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, and Jones. Four states, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, and Virginia share the top surnames of Smith, Johnson, and Jones.

[Sources: Frequently Occurring Surnames in the 2010 Census; and Ancestry: What's the Most Common Surname in Your State? Additional sources:;; and pancocojams blog.]

The study of African American surnames tends to be in reference to genealogy research going back to slavery, the use of European surnames, and the more current use of African names. Though, "Black First Names" are not necessarily African Names but can be newly created names or recreated names. For example, the name Adaliza has been identified as Old German, or Swiss, or French. An African American explanation is that the name Adaliza is the combined names of family members Ada and Lisa spelled Liza.

[Sources: Common African American Last Names and Their Meanings, a GenealogyBank webpage; A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors by Franklin Carter Smith and Emily Ann Croom; 1,001 African Names: first and last names from the African continent by Julia Stewart; S. Ruggles, "The Origins of African-American family structure," American Sociological Review, v.59, no.1, (February 1994), pp.136-151; Lupenga Mphande, "Naming and linguistic Africanisms in African American culture," Selected Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference on African Linguistics: African languages and linguistics in broad perspectives edited by J. Mugane, J. P. Hutchinson, and D. A. Worman; Black Names for Black People by Chisa Sallah; Black Names in America: origins and usage by N. N. Puckett and M. Heller; and R. G. Fryer and S. D. Levitt, "The Causes and consequences of distinctively Black names," NBER Working Paper #9938, NBER Program(s): Labor Studies, Law and Economics, National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2003 (online)]

The journey has not been smooth. Too often, the first and last name did not matter when adult African Americans were referred to as "boy" or "girl," or worse terms. The negative terms were meant to depower the individual and take away their freedom. To refer to a person by their given name is to recognize the individual as a person. When African Americans gained their freedom from enslavement, they also gained the freedom to name themselves and their children.

Unlike surnames that tied individuals to families, the given name (first name) was the parents' choice, parents who were free and would be keeping their children. In 2013, Cook, Logan, and Parman documented the naming pattern of African Americans at the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century. Their work gives evidence that African Americans had "Black Names" during slavery and long before the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. There is also research that examines the racist reactions to having distinct "Black Names" when seeking employment, and the way crime reports involving African Americans are presented by the news media, and the deaths of African Americans with "Black Names."

[Sources: L. D. Cook, T. D. Logan, and J. M. Parman, "Distinctively black names in the American past," NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper #18802, National Bureau of Economic Research, February 2013 (online); L. Cook, T. Logan, and J. Parman, "The mortality consequences of distinctively black names," NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper #21625, National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2015 (online); S. Lieberson and K. S. Mikelson, "Distinctive African American names: an experimental, historical, and linguistic analysis of innovation," American Sociological Review, v.60, no.6, (December 1995), pp.928-946; and Black Names Matter: the Black names book by Bobby Cenoura]. 

"Black Names" and unique names, regardless of race or ethnicity, do not appear at the top of the most common given names lists in the United States. Instead, "James" and "Mary" were at the top of the list for most of the 20th Century, from 1919 to the 1990s [source: America's Top Baby Names Over the Last Century, an webpage].

While the Civil Rights Movement is often credited as the period when "Black Names" flourished in the United States, it was also during this time when given names on the state level were also changing. In Kentucky, the most popular first names followed the national pattern of "James" and "Mary." Then, in 1963, "Lisa" replaced "Mary" as the top name for girls. It would take another decade for "Michael" to replace "James" as the top name for boys. The name "James" re-emerged as the top name in 1993, but just for that one year. For more than half a century, since 1962, the name "Mary" has not resurfaced as the top name for girls in Kentucky [see also: Philip Cohen, "Why don't parents name their daughters Mary anymore?," The Atlantic, 12/04/2012 (online)].

** Attached to this entry is the list of the most popular names for boys and girls in Kentucky from 1960-2000 [source: Social Security database Popular Names by State].

While there are African American children with the given names of James and Mary in Kentucky, there continue to be many more names recognized as "Black Names." These are some of the same names that were given to children in the 1700s and 1800s. As Cook, Logan, and Parman stated in their article, these names are not the result of rebellions or civil rights movements. They are names that continue to live with us.

This is not to say that African Americans in Kentucky are any more or any less ingenious in taking great pride to bless their children with creative and unique names that will serve them well throughout life. Rather, it is a much wider and deeper continuum and Kentucky is a part of the whole. According to author Blessing Ngozi Egwu, positive names go a long way in supporting a child having a positive life. Many of the names in Egwu's book, The Power of Positive Names, are similar to the early "Black Names" found in census records, and death and birth records.

** Attached to this entry is a spreadsheet with 360 "Black First Names," unique names, and derogatory names given to African Americans born in Kentucky between 1750 and 1940. [Sources: U.S. Census Records, State Census Records, Death Records, Birth Records, Mortality Schedules, and Cemetery Publications]

"Black Names" have been praised as empowering, beautiful and creative. "Black Names" have been damned as slave names, ghetto names, and an indication of low-class and low-income. Nonetheless, the fact remains that regardless of what has been done, said, written, or researched, "Black Names" are here to stay and continue to stand on 400 years of history.

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Black Names, Kentucky,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed May 22, 2024,

Last modified: 2022-09-07 19:34:02