BON 2: What’s in a Name Anyway?

Ten years ago, when I first encountered contraband camp registers created near Charleston, S.C., I marveled at the name of one freedmen–Hard Times. I immediately theorized that H.T. made up his own name, and that he was quite the man even if enslaved. I came across another Hart Times in a register I finished transcribing only today. This H.T. was in 1963 employed on pubic building on Hilton Head Island. He was a carpenter paid $12 a month for his work. I’m revising my thinking on the name being unique, now seeing it as a folk name maybe belonging to South Carolina slavery. I wonder if someone having the name would be called so by master or mistress, especially since it speaks to the oppressiveness of the slave condition. And of course I also wonder how the two Hard Times felt about that name. Did it inspire pessimism or optimism, or neither?

There are many other names I have wondered about. Probably the freedman I spend most time researching, besides my own soldier ancestor, is a preacher named Africa Bailey born in Southampton County Va and moved to Mississippi in the 1830s with a well-heeled Scottish clan. I have had similar questions about Africa’s character. Did his mistress, Elizabeth Hull, who was decidedly pro-slavery, call him Africa? He was identified as such in her last will and testament. Isn’t the name ironic? Would Hull’s complicity have contributed to the bondman’s African identity and esteem? Is that not odd?

I am knee deep in this–recovering records of African Americans in transition to freedom in the U.S. South and reading the names and meditating, as much as I’m able, on them as I literally type them into a spreadsheet. Certain ones just stand out.

Examples would be freedmen and women named after months–January, February, March, April, May, June, July. March is most popular, there being six individuals with this name. Did they arrive in camp in March? Did they rename themselves or bring the names into freedom with them? It is possible that they had carried these month-names before the war as Africa carried his name from the continent?

There are many more freedpeople carrying cosmological names, which I tend to think they did not choose for themselves, or maybe they did after generations in slavery. Jupiter, Neptune, Friday, Monday. Others are apparently named after places, English, Scottish, and Irish homes of masters I suspect–Boston, Bristol. However, most others in this record of 594 people carry names we’ve maybe come to associate with slavery, but which I’ve come to associate more with slavery in South Carolina–Cuffee, Toby, Scipio.

In the Hilton Head Register, most appear without a last name. Only the first person on this list is recognized to have a surname. Abram Murchison is a preacher formerly owned by Mr. Lexeter. While Murchison’s fellows earn anywhere between $5 and $13 a week, he is paid $20. Did the commander think preaching more important than woodworking?

In this register, owners’ names are mentioned, and they sometimes stand out too. There are seven Cruels, provided the honorary title Mr. There’s Mr. Lagree, of obvious literary association, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There are five Grumbles. I would be inclined to think that these ironic names are made up by the freedpeople, a small way of getting back at their masters for, yes, cruelty of ownership. But, I have no way of proving this, and it would appear that the freedpeople reporting the names came to camp at different times and gave their names and those of their former owners separately.

I have much more to say about names. In the next post, I will identify the largest name groups among masters identified, that is, the slave owners that reoccur most in this particular register. For now, I will just mention Seabrook because some of these freedpeople are employed at the Seabrook Dock, and that makes me wonder what Mr. Seabrook was doing during the war and how far his former slaves traveled.

There is much to learn from names. I am looking forward to finding out all I can to and passing on my thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s