A Brief History of Black Names, From Booker and Perlie to Jamal and Latasha

Article by Trevon Logan. Logan is the Hazel C. Youngberg Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio State University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Most people recognize that there are first names given almost exclusively by black Americans to their children, such as Jamal and Latasha.

While fodder for comedians and social commentary, many have assumed that these distinctively black names are a modern phenomenon. My research shows that’s not true.

Long before there was Jamal and Latasha, there was Booker and Perlie. The names have changed, but my colleagues and I traced the use of distinctive black names to the earliest history of the United States.

As scholars of history, demographics and economics, we found that there is nothing new about black names.

Black names aren’t new

Many scholars believe that distinctively black names emerged from the civil rights movement, perhaps attributable to the Black Power movement and the later black cultural movement of the 1990s as a way to affirm and embrace black culture. Before this time, the argument goes, blacks and whites had similar naming patterns.

Historical evidence does not support this belief.

Until a few years ago, the story of black names depended almost exclusively on data from the 1960s onward. New data, such as the digitization of census and newly available birth and death records from historical periods, allows us to analyze the history of black names in more detail.

We used federal census records and death certificates from the late 1800s in Illinois, Alabama and North Carolina to see if there were names that were held almost exclusively by blacks and not whites in the past. We found that there were indeed.

For example, in the 1920 census, 99% of all men with the first name of Booker were black, as were 80% of all men named Perlie or its variations. We found that the fraction of blacks holding a distinctively black name in the early 1900s is comparable to the fraction holding a distinctively black name at the end of the 20th century, around 3%.

What were the black names back then?

We were interested to learn that the black names of the late 1800s and early 1900s are not the same black names that we recognize today.

The historical names that stand out are largely biblical such as Elijah, Isaac, Isaiah, Moses and Abraham, and names that seem to designate empowerment such as Prince, King and Freeman.

These names are quite different from black names today such as Tyrone, Darnell and Kareem, which grew in popularity during the civil rights movement.

Once we knew black names were used long before the civil rights era, we wondered how black names emerged and what they represented. To find out, we turned to the antebellum era – the time before the Civil War – to see if the historical black names existed before the emancipation of slaves.

Since the census didn’t record the names of enslaved Africans, this led to a search of records of names from slave markets and ship manifests.

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Source: The Conversation