Revisiting Carolina Slave Names

In 1983, John C. Inscoe published “Carolina Slave Names: an Index to Acculturation.”* In the article, he argues that enslaved African Americans accepted the names given them by Europeans but also made them their own. Inscoe saw this process as an example of acculturation and thought that African American naming practices or nomenclature allowed scholars to trace the rate and degree of acculturation. He explains as well that names may tell us something of individuals but sets of names tell us much about the larger social group.

The first generations of slaves reduced this set to a somewhat smaller and more standardized collection, while adding to it names and naming practices from their African heritage, from their experiences as slaves, and from other sources besides that of their owners and their owners’ culture.”

Inscoe, John C. “Carolina Slave Names: An Index to Acculturation.” The Journal of Southern History 49, no. 4 (1983): 527-54. doi:10.2307/2208675.

Inscoe encouraged the study of slave names when and where they were written down, yet he perhaps did not anticipate the increase in the accessibility of slave names that would multiply in the digital era. Contraband camp registers, their publication, certainly make timely the study of names today.

In my last post, I wondered out loud about certain names–Africa and Hard Times–the first the name of a former slave born in Southampton County, Virginia and taken to the deep South and the second occurring twice in South Carolina registers. I wondered about the boldness of both names, one embracing the mother continent and the other seeming to be a judgement of the condition of slavery. Inscoe wrote that the nation’s earliest slaves did not get to choose their names, but evidence suggests that, later, most parents indeed named their children (529).

The names Hard Times for males and Mourning for females are especially striking in the frequency in which they appear in Carolina slave lists

Inscoe himself studied naming practices among slaves in North and South Carolina and found the practices to be very similar. In nineteenth-century Carolina, Inscoe found few “purely African” names yet found naming practices to be strikingly similar to West African practices. Though he admits of diversity in such practices, he recognized some common denominators.

Day names or the day of the week in which a child was born, Inscoe identified as “the most prevalent sources of African nomenclature” (532). There are fourteen (total) such names, seven of them male and seven of them female. Examples include Quash (Sunday), Cudjoe (Monday), Cuffee or Cuff (Friday), and Juba (Monday) (533).

The months of the year too were common, mostly, according to Inscoe as male names.

Though often seen as denigrative today, Sambo referred to one’s birth order, a second son (533). Inscoe added, however, that in some African groups the name is in fact associated with disgrace.

Inscoe noted that advertisements for runaway slaves often gave both their African name and a slave name, and he believed that the frequency in which such names as Cudjoe or Quash occurred suggests the kind of slaves these were, ones more likely to insist on retaining their African names.

Inscoe pointed to Phoebe as a possible derivation of the African Phibba, “the feminine name for Friday” (535).

Place names also were common including references to birth places and references to British Isles, for instance very popular were London and York (537). According to Inscoe, mothers were interested in the coming and going of ships and so might choose a port city name like Norfolk or Boston. (My own guess is that these mothers were inspired by retention of African religious practice that called upon a symbolic universe that would promise actual mobility from a name suggesting it.)

While some scholars believe Carolina slaves were conscious of their name choices, Inscoe expressed some doubt; he suggested that sometimes names might be chosen for an appealing sound or some other reason. He noted for example that a child named January might have been born in a different month. I tend to think that a month name might not have indicated the actual month of birth. Rather, the month could stand for something like “first,” winter, cold, Janus, etc. I think there are all sorts of possibilities and what was most important was what the word symbolized. Inscoe quoted one man who explained that his mother named him Monday because he was first born (538).

Despite survival of Africanisms, Inscoe wrote that whites certainly did name slaves, in many cases choosing names that they would not have used for their own children. Slaveowners used the Bible and other literature as sources of names, and, Inscoe reasoned that slaves did not necessarily know the origin. Of course, as time passed this would seem less the case, and, again, I would have to argue that whatever meaning or significance or interpretation the slave embraced was really what was most important. Enslaved people, in this way, created power in the process of transforming meaning and purpose.

Sometimes, according to Inscoe, an enslaved person might seek permission to name a child after the master; however, in the Carolinas the practice was rare (539). Symbolically, the owner’s name might be associated with power. While namesakes may have been less common in the Carolinas, names of statesmen, e.g. Washington, Jackson, or Columbus were apparently not uncommon. Inscoe gave an example of a slave named Jefferson who was proud to have been at Monticello. Again, African cosmology may point to the enslaved person’s recognition of the master in the order of things. Accordingly, the naming practice may be both an act and, in another sense, a counter act.

Greco-Roman names such as Primus, Cato, Cicero, and Pompey Iscoe believed were a reflection both of eighteenth century education and of a desired affinity between American slavery and ancient slavery. While some scholars have thought the names were perceived by blacks as degrading, Inscoe did not agree that they were so perceived. Classical names continued to exist through the entire slave period, according to Inscoe.

Inscoe concluded that naming practices are various and complicated. I am excited to see what new documents to which we have access will indicate. I hypothesize that we will learn that naming practices retained more African tradition than even Inscoe has realized. It appears that our ancestors knew that words carry power. What may look like acculturation or assimilation, may have been so but only on one level. On another level, the ancestors may have been manipulating word as symbol with faith that the symbolic universe intersected their actual lives.

*Inscoe, John C. “Carolina Slave Names: An Index to Acculturation.” The Journal of Southern History 49, no. 4 (1983): 527-54. doi:10.2307/2208675.

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