Last names are an important part of family history and culture. For African Americans, last names often reflect the complex history of slavery and post-Civil War migration patterns. Many common black last names originated during slavery times on plantations. Enslaved individuals were often given surnames by their owners, which accounts for some of the most frequent surnames like Washington, Jefferson, Harris, Jackson, etc. Other common black last names can be traced back to African origins, such as names like Kenya, Ghana, and Senegal.
After Emancipation, many former slaves adopted new surnames, either to distance themselves from former owners or to create unique identities. This resulted in creative adaptations of traditional African naming patterns, leading to names like Johnson, Robinson, and Freeman becoming widespread among freed slaves. The Great Migration also shaped black naming patterns, as millions of African Americans left the rural South seeking opportunities in northern cities. This geographic mobility allowed for further surname adaptations and variations.
Today, data on common surnames provides a window into the ancestry, history, and cultural traditions of African American families. Examining which last names are most widespread can reveal insights about post-Civil War migration, regional cultural differences, and the evolution of black identity in America.
Most Common Black Last Names and Their Origins
According to census data and other public records, these surnames are among the most common held by African Americans today:
|Williams||Derived either from slave owners named William, or adopted after Emancipation referring to the desire for “will” and determination.|
|Johnson||Often from slave owners named Johnson, but also adopted after Emancipation or to create a generic surname.|
|Jackson||From slave owners named Jackson or Andrew Jackson, or in honor of cities/counties named Jackson.|
|White||Sometimes from light-skinned ancestry, other times slave owners named White or adopted afterward.|
|Harris||From slave owners named Harris.|
|Martin||From slave owners named Martin or after Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.|
|Thomas||From slave owners named Thomas.|
|Hill||Describes families that lived on or near hills or adopted as symbolic.|
|Scott||From slave owners named Scott.|
|Mitchell||From slave owners named Mitchell.|
As seen, many common black last names originate from slaveowners – either the owner’s surname was imposed on slaves, or slaves adopted their surnames after Emancipation. Surnames of presidents also became popular, like Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson.
Other names came from adopted Anglicized versions of African names or represent aspirational choices after Emancipation. Names like Freeman, Baptist, King, and Liberty emerged as freed slaves sought new identities. Geographical surnames that described local areas became common too.
Most Common Surnames by U.S. State
While the above names tend to be common nationally, examining black surnames by state can also provide insights. Here are some of the top black last names by region:
|State||Most Common Surnames|
|Alabama||Williams, Washington, Jefferson, Harris, Wilson|
|Georgia||Williams, Washington, Jefferson, Johnson, Jackson|
|Mississippi||Washington, Jefferson, Johnson, Williams, Jackson|
|North Carolina||Williams, Washington, Brown, Jones, Wilson|
|South Carolina||Williams, Brown, Wilson, Johnson, Jones|
|Virginia||Washington, Jefferson, Johnson, Brown, Jones|
|Louisiana||Williams, Moore, Thomas, Johnson, Brown|
|Texas||Washington, Williams, Jones, Brown, Johnson|
|California||Williams, Harris, Brown, Lewis, Martin|
|Illinois||Williams, Brown, Jones, Washington, Davis|
|New York||Brown, Williams, Moore, Taylor, Anderson|
|Pennsylvania||Williams, Brown, Jones, Johnson, Davis|
Regional naming patterns reflect local histories. In the South, names of early presidents and slave owners were widely adopted. In northern states, names like Anderson, Lewis, Moore, and Taylor reflect more diverse influences. Unique state migration patterns also impacted naming – Louisiana reflects French influence, while names like Washington and Jefferson persist in Texas due to migration of many freed slaves there.
Most Common Surnames Among Foundational African Americans
Beyond general statistics, looking at surnames of notable early African Americans provides insight into black historical naming patterns:
|Frederick Douglass||Douglass||Chosen surname after escape from slavery|
|Harriet Tubman||Tubman||Father’s first name as surname|
|Sojourner Truth||Truth||Chosen surname after emancipation|
|Booker T. Washington||Washington||From former slave owner’s surname|
|George Washington Carver||Carver||From former slave owner’s surname|
|Rosa Parks||Parks||Husband’s surname|
|Martin Luther King, Jr.||King||Father’s chosen surname|
|Malcolm X||X||Chosen surname symbolizing lost African name|
|Thurgood Marshall||Marshall||Paternal grandfather’s surname|
|Shirley Chisholm||Chisholm||Husband’s surname|
Many early black leaders chose new surnames to establish freed identities or to symbolize African ancestry lost under slavery. Surnames connected to spouses and fathers were also common. Despite the variety of naming stories, these individuals all shaped black history under their distinct surnames.
Most Common Black Last Names in the U.S. Military
The U.S. military has historically been an important source of opportunity and advancement for African American men. Examining common black surnames in the military provides perspective on broader trends:
|Branch||Most Common Surnames|
|Army||Williams, Brown, Jones, Jackson, Harris|
|Navy||Washington, Brown, Davis, Wilson, Moore|
|Marines||Williams, Johnson, Jackson, White, Harris|
|Air Force||Washington, Brown, Miller, Thomas, Moore|
The prevalence of names like Williams, Johnson, Brown, Washington and Harris reflects patterns in the broader African American population. The military has been a path for advancement for many black families, as reflected in this sample of common surnames among service members.
Most Common Black Last Names in Sports
Sports have long provided opportunities for African Americans to advance and gain cultural influence. Looking at common black last names in different sports reveals some patterns:
|Sport||Most Common Surnames|
|Basketball (NBA)||Johnson, Williams, Brown, James, Jones|
|Football (NFL)||Brown, Williams, Washington, Johnson, Jackson|
|Baseball (MLB)||Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis|
|Track and Field||Brown, Williams, Lewis, Jones, Harris|
|Boxing||Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Robinson|
Again, names like Johnson, Williams, Brown, and Jones reflect the broad popularity of these surnames among African Americans historically. Sports allowed black athletes to gain fame and notoriety as champions under these lasting names.
Most Common Black Last Names in Entertainment
From early pioneers in entertainment to present-day stars, these black last names in music, film and television appear frequently:
|Industry||Most Common Surnames|
|Music||Brown, Williams, Johnson, Jones, Davis|
|Film/TV||Washington, Williams, Brown, Smith, Jones|
|Comedy||Murphy, Williams, Jones, Jordan, Rock|
Icons like Nat King Cole, The Jackson 5, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Pryor and Viola Davis all
gained renown in entertainment under these lasting surnames. Film and television in particular boosted famous black last names like Washington, Smith and Murphy.
Origins of Unique or Uncommon Black Last Names
While names like Williams, Washington and Jackson lead among black households, less common surnames also appear, some with unique origins:
|Apache||Named after Native American tribe|
|Bishop||Often a first name becoming surname|
|Slaughter||From owner surname or violent history|
|Bookman||Referred to education|
|Butler||Referred to service position|
|Cooper||Referred to barrel-making|
These unique or ambiguous surnames often arose from the adoptive naming practices of freed slaves, where they chose aspirational or descriptive names. Names like Apache connected to native roots, while others like Bishop and Merritt had aspirational meanings. Obscure surnames provide glimpses into the inventive naming of newly freed black citizens after the Civil War.
Traditional African Surnames/Naming Among African Americans
Slavery stripped most African Americans of ancestral surnames, disconnecting families from traditions. Still, some elements of African naming culture persist:
– Use of Muslim names like Muhammad, Malik and Aaliyah among some families
– French surnames among Louisiana Creoles, like Balthazar, Chevalier and Dubois
– Names derived from African words, like Ghana, Congo, Kenya
– Adaptions of clan names like Toure, Jobarteh, Balde
– Name extensions, as in James Wadkins Davis III
– Honoring ancestry through naming children
Though erased by slavery, fragments of African naming culture echo in parts of the modern African American naming landscape today.
Surname Spellings in the Black Community
Alternative or unique spellings of common black surnames also appear, which can denote specific family lines:
– Jonson vs Johnson
– Brown vs Browne
– William vs Williams vs Willams
– Mosley vs Mosely
– Jackson vs Jaxson
– Cartright vs Carruth vs Carrothers
– Edmunson vs Edmundson
Adapted or Anglicized spellings sometimes resulted when freed slaves adopted common surnames like Johnson or Jackson. These spelling variations can distinguish different branches of families. Records may also reflect ancestors’ limited literacy or interpretation of black Southern accents by recordkeepers.
Surname Origin Stories from Notable Black Families
Beyond statistics, many modern African American families have passed down oral histories around how they gained their surnames:
– **Oprah Winfrey** – Born Oprah Gail Winfrey. Father Vernon Winfrey chose the surname to honor his family’s slave ancestors.
– **Spike Lee** – Born Shelton Jackson Lee. Mother chose the name “Spike” in honor of her first husband James E. Lee III, nicknamed “Spike.”
– **Beyoncé Knowles** – Born Beyoncé Giselle Knowles. Father Mathew Knowles’ surname tied to once-enslaved ancestors named Knowles.
– **Kamala Harris** – Born Kamala Devi Harris. Mother Shyamala Gopalan, an immigrant from India, passed down the Hindu surname.
– **LeBron James** – Born LeBron Raymone James. Single mother Gloria Marie James gave him her surname at birth.
– **Barack Obama** – Born Barack Hussein Obama II. Father Barack Obama Sr. passed down uncommon Luo surname from Kenya.
– **Simone Biles** – Born Simone Arianne Biles. Biological grandfather Joseph Biles gave surname, although she was adopted.
These naming narratives show diverse sources for modern black last names – from honoring ancestors, to inherited immigrant names, to maternity-line surnames, among others.
In conclusion, examining black surnames provides a window into the complex ancestry and rich cultural traditions of African American life. Diverse naming practices developed under slavery, during post-Civil War Reconstruction, and through later migrations. Common black last names in the U.S. today honor this journey. While slavery ruptured ancestral ties, black surnames still carry generations of history. Through studying origins and distributions of surnames, we discover stories of enslaved forebears who emerged from bondage to claim identities and pass down legacies that thrive among millions of their descendants today.