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Slave name

A slave name is the personal name given by others to an enslaved person, or a name inherited from enslaved ancestors.

Ancient Rome

In Rome, slaves were given a single name by their owner. A slave who was freed might keep his or her slave name and adopt the former owner's name as a praenomen and nomen. As an example, one historian says that "a man named Publius Larcius freed a male slave named Nicia, who was then called Publius Larcius Nicia."[1]

Historian Harold Whetstone Johnston writes of instances in which a slave's former owner chose to ignore custom and simply chose a name for the freedman.[2]

African Americans

African-American enslaved persons often chose the names of their former enslavers when they became freemen. Malcolm X wrote:

"The slave master who owned us put his last name on us to denote that we were his property. So when you see a negro today who’s named Johnson, if you go back in his history you will find that his grandfather, or one of his forefathers, was owned by a white man who was named Johnson. My father didn’t know his last name. My father got his last name from his grandfather, and his grandfather got it from his grandfather, who got it from the slave master. The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery."[3]

Former slaves were free to choose their own names after they became free.[4] Many chose names like 'Freeman' to denote their new status, while others picked names of famous people or people they admired, such as US Presidents like George Washington.[5] Other commonly chosen names were 'Johnson', 'Brown' and 'Williams', which had been popular before emancipation.

An individual's name change often coincides with a religious conversion (Muhammad Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay, Malcolm X from Malcolm Little, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr, and Louis Farrakhan changed his from Louis Eugene Walcott, for example)[6][7] or involvement with the black nationalist movement, in this later case usually adopting names of African origin (e.g., Amiri Baraka and Assata Shakur).[8]

Some organizations encourage African Americans to abandon their slave names. The Nation of Islam is perhaps the best-known of them. In his 1965 book, Message to the Blackman in America, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad writes often of slave names. Some of his comments include:

  • "You must remember that slave-names will keep you a slave in the eyes of the civilized world today. You have seen, and recently, that Africa and Asia will not honor you or give you any respect as long as you are called by the white man's name."[9]
  • "You are still called by your slave-masters' names. By rights, by international rights, you belong to the white man of America. He knows that. You have never gotten out of the shackles of slavery. You are still in them."[10]

The black nationalist US Organization also advocates for African-Americans to change their 'slave' names and adopt African names.[11]

Other references

Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor stated in 2017 that she had changed her legal name to Magda Davitt, saying in an interview that she wished to be "free of the patriarchal slave names."[12] On her conversion to Islam in 2018, she adopted the Muslim name Shuhada' Sadaqat.[13]

See also


  1. ^ Roman Nomenclature at
  2. ^ Johnson, Harold Whetstone; Johnston, Mary; Names of Freedmen; 1903, 1932;
  3. ^ "Hey, Black America, Let's All Ditch Our Slave Names". Medium. Retrieved June 2, 2022.
  4. ^ Craven, Julia (2022-02-24). "Many African American last names hold weight of Black history". NBC News. Retrieved 19 September 2023.
  5. ^ "Tracing Your Roots: Were Slaves' Surnames Like Brands?". The Root. 16 June 2017. Retrieved 19 September 2023.
  6. ^ "Louis Farrakhan Biography". Database. Retrieved 2011-10-20.
  7. ^ "Muhammad Ali Biography". Database. Retrieved 2011-10-20.
  8. ^ Deburg, William L. Van, Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan, NYU Press (1997), p. 269, ISBN 0-8147-8789-4
  9. ^ Message to the Blackman; Muhammad, Elijah; Chapter 24;
  10. ^ Muhammad, Elijah; Message to the Blackman; Chapter 34;
  11. ^ "NGUZO SABA (The Seven Principles)" From : US Organization website
  12. ^ "Sinead O'Connor's mother 'ran a torture chamber'". The Independent. 2017-09-12. Retrieved 2019-10-25.
  13. ^ "Sinead O'Connor (Shuhada Sadaqat): 'I'm rebuilding life' | The Point Of Everything". Retrieved 2019-10-25.
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Slave name
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