The Names

Every name on this website is the name of a real person of African descent.

We celebrate those names here and we advocate for racial justice for every person behind every name. The link between a name and racial justice is clear: Every person has a name. Many people share the same name. When people share a name, they find common ground. When people find common ground, they see the humanity in the other. Sharing names and the stories of names helps people find common ground, humanity, and the quest for justice.

The Black Names Project website is now populated with names that appeared in the 1998 book, The Complete Guide to African-American Baby Names. Many names came from people who completed a questionnaire. Some names came from organizations and institutions that responded to a request for names. Some names came from the pages of history. Although the author thoroughly researched the names and their meaning and origins, the author also honored all names and the meanings and stories that came with those names. Those meanings and stories may not always agree with the academic study of names (anthroponomastics).

People of African descent are invited to submit their first and middle names to the website by completing the African-American Names Questionnaire (accessible through the Action button). The author will research the meaning and origin of each name before adding it to the website.

Behind the Names

A name is no more than a mark on a page or a sound hanging in the air until it belongs to somebody—then it becomes a celebration of life. More than a label attached to a face, a name tells a story. A name becomes an instrument for honoring the life behind the name, a vehicle for exploring and understanding our American history and African heritage, and a medium for expressing the culture that passes down from one generation to the next.

Many enslaved people who came to America were stripped of their African names and were given names by their masters—usually just one name, such as Queenie or Caesar. Many grave markers reflect the name of the plantation or household where those buried were held as slaves, but only an initial for the name of the deceased. Over time, enslaved people were permitted to name their children.

After the hanging of Nat Turner in 1831, following America’s most serious African uprising in resistance to slavery, many enslaved mothers wanted to name their sons “Nat,” after the insurgent preacher who led the uprising. But fearing punishment, they named their sons “Moses,” which became a code name for “Nat.” Enslaved families often kept family surnames in secret and gave their children names of grandmothers and grandfathers, or perhaps of a favorite aunt or uncle, so the children would remember their ancestors, so they would memorialize the people who had died, so they would honor those who had been left behind, so they would praise the names of God’s children who had been sold away.

After the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many previously enslaved people took on many names. A man named Ben, for example, may have changed his name to Benjamin George Washington Abraham Lincoln. Through the years, given names in the African-American community have reflected the culture of the time—from adding extra letters or syllables to common names (LaTanya, DeRon), to creating names (Korika, Jojuan), to blending names (Albertha, Thelton), and embracing names from Africa (Ayana, Imamu).

Today, people of African descent living in the United States represent varied journeys. Some are descendants of slaves, who came against their will. Some have come by way of the Caribbean Islands. Some have recently come directly from Africa. Many are bi-racial. Their skin tones are as varied as their journeys and their names.

Learn More About the People