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Playing the Name Game
African-American Genealogical Research in Motion
by Melvin J. Collier

Hector Davis & Lucy Milam Davis
1842 - 1925            1846 - 1927


     When Africans were forcibly taken from West and West-Central Africa and transported to the Americas, their freedom was not only eradicated, but they were systematically stripped of their African heritages. English colonies developed a series of laws to define chattel slavery in America, which included the outlawing of African religious rituals, the banning of the use of drums, and the barring of African languages. The children of Africa entered the New World with names that represented their family heritage in their homeland. However, those names were replaced with European names forced upon them by their enslavers. The enforcement of the use of those European names was depicted in the 1977-movie, Roots. In a tearful scene, Kunte Kinte was brutally whipped for refusing to take his given name, Toby. As Africans acclimated to the horrific life situations forced upon them by American chattel slavery, they and the successive generations began to establish their identity in the New World by adopting surnames, especially after the Civil War.

     One of the most common and often erroneous presumptions is that when enslaved African Americans were emancipated during and after the Civil War, a majority retained the surnames of their last enslavers. Many freed African Americans not only took different surnames after slavery, but many had surnames on the plantations that were concealed from most slave-owners and other whites. In The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, historian Herbert Gutman quoted the following from the 1865 diary of Eliza Frances Andrews, a slave-owner’s daughter in Georgia:

“I notice that the negroes seldom or never take the names of the present owners in adopting their ‘entitles’ as they call their own surnames, but always that of some former master, and they go back as far as possible”.

     I researched the slave narratives of Mississippi to test Eliza Andrews' observation. My research findings seem to corroborate her claim to a degree.  Eighty-one African-American men from Mississippi were interviewed with only two of the interviewees not disclosing the name of their last enslaver. Of the 79 men who disclosed their last enslavers’ full or last names, 57% of them did not take their surnames.  These are the results of my findings:

Surname Pattern Number Percentage
Same surname as last enslaver 35 43%
Different surname from last enslaver 44 57%
Total number of interviews 79  

     In a similar study, historian Herbert G. Gutman investigated the slave narratives for the states of South Carolina and Texas. Gutman found from those narratives that former slaves from those two states or their parents had often either retained or chosen surnames different from their last enslavers’. From the interviews of 181 African Americans in South Carolina, nearly three out of four had different surnames. In Texas, two out of three African Americans who were interviewed chose different surnames.  These were Gutman's results:

South Carolina
Surname Pattern Number Percentage
Same surname as last enslaver 49 27%
Different surname from last enslaver 132 73%
Total number of interviews 181  
Surname Pattern Number Percentage
Same surname as last enslaver 74 34%
Different surname from last enslaver 143 66%
Total number of interviews 217  

Taking A Different Surname

     In my research over the years, I found that a number of my ancestors did not retain their last slave-owners' surnames.  Here's how I stumbled on that fact for one of my ancestors, Hector Davis:

     I've spent a lot of days at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History (MDAH) in Jackson turning miles of microfilm. The night before one of those visits, I listed several things I was going to research. After spending several hours at the MDAH the next morning, I had completed my research list. Some information I was able to find and some I didn't. However, before I got up to head home to enjoy the rest of the day, another "nudge" from the ancestors coerced me to stay put and take a look at the DeSoto County, Mississippi marriage records of the early Black marriages (1866-188?).  I'd researched that microfilm several months before in search of a marriage record for my great-great-grandparents, Hector & Lucy Davis. The 1900 Panola County, Mississippi census had reported that they had been married 34 years, so I was hoping to find their marriage certificate.  I couldn't. They were living in Tate County (which was part of DeSoto County prior to 1873) before 1880.

     Although this was not on my research agenda, I retrieved the microfilm again, placed it on the microfilm reader, and started to browse through the marriage records again. This time, I noticed that I had missed the bride's index. Before, I had only browsed the groom's index without any success and didn't notice that there was a bride's index. Well, minutes later, I came upon a name - Lucy Milam. I knew my great-great-grandmother's maiden name was Milam, so I quickly got excited. I then turned to the page the marriage certificate was on and found the following:  Hector BURNETT to Lucy Milam, July 3, 1866.

     I became elated and bewildered at the same time.  I said to myself, "His name is Hector Davis not Hector Burnett! Where in the world did this Burnett name come from? Somebody made a huge mistake!" I sat there for a while staring at the marriage certificate, wondering why Grandpa Hector's name had been recorded as Burnett. Amazingly, the next certificate was of Huldah Burnett (Hector's sister) marrying Spencer Milam (Lucy's brother, I believe). The two Burnett/Milam couples had married on the same day. Interesting!

     After finding those marriage records, I just couldn't leave there without taking a look at the 1870 & 1880 DeSoto (Tate) and Panola County censuses again to see if I could find any persons with the last name Burnett, a name I had never heard of in my family history from my family elders.  I had to research both counties because my ancestors lived less than a mile from the Tate-Panola County line.  To my surprise, I found Grandpa Hector's brother, Jack Davis Jr., in the 1870 DeSoto County census, and his name was reported as Jack Burnett! 

     I could never find Uncle Jack prior to 1880 because I had been looking for a "Jack Davis."  By 1870, Grandpa Hector and their parents, Jack Sr. & Flora, had already changed their names to Davis, but Uncle Jack was still reported as Burnett.  However, by the time the 1880 census was taken, all of the family had changed over to Davis.  When I found Uncle Jack and his family in the 1870 census, guess who lived near him?

You guessed it - a white Burnett!  An elderly lady named Anna Burnett, age 74, was in the same area in 1870.  Just like Grandpa Hector Davis, his parents, and his siblings, Anna Burnett had also come from South Carolina. Hmmmm....  I wasn't going to leave the MDAH until I started researching for the answers to following questions:

   (1) Who was Anna Burnett's husband and when did he die?

   (2) Were they indeed the last enslavers of Grandpa Hector, his parents, and siblings? 

   (3) Where in South Carolina did they come from? Census analysis revealed that my Davis ancestors arrived in northern Mississippi from South Carolina around 1861, probably shortly before the Civil War began. Did the Burnetts bring them to Mississippi?

   (4) Why did my ancestors change their surname to Davis?

(1) Who was Anna Burnett's husband and when did he die?

     I found a book at the MDAH entitled Cemeteries of Panola County, Mississippi, published by the Panola Historical Society in 1994.  Their members had visited numerous cemeteries throughout Panola County, transcribed names and dates from tombstones, and published this information in a book.  God bless them!  In it, I found the following:

BURNETT, John 1/7/1795 - 10/23/1862
BURNETTE, Anna, wife of John, 11/7/1797 - 9/7/1878
(Special notation: Anna's stone has an "e", John does not.)

(2) Were John & Anna Burnett the last enslavers of
Grandpa Hector Davis and his family?

     Thankfully, John Burnett had died in 1862 - before slavery had ended in 1865.  He had died around a year after they migrated to Mississippi.  Therefore, if there's a will and/or probate/estate records for him, it may include the names of any slaves he had owned since slaves were considered property - very valuable property.  Instead of going to work one Wednesday morning, I decided to drive down to Hernando, Mississippi to the DeSoto County courthouse to search for Burnett's will and estate records.  The courthouse worker took me to a room filled with file cabinets that contain estate dockets.  Within a few minutes, I was happy to see that there was one for John Burnett.  I carefully opened his estate docket and browsed through the fragile documents within it.  My heart started pounding when I held two old blue/greenish pieces of paper, held together by a rusty stickpin that was probably over 130 years old, and realized that it was the following slave inventory dated March 20, 1863:

    1 Negro man named Jack $700
    1  "        "          "     George $1400
    1  "        "          "     Young Jack $1400
    1 "         "          "     HECTOR $1200
    1 "         "          "     Cato $1300
    1 Negro girl Nancy $1100
    1 old Negro woman Flora $400
    1 girl Julia $1100
    1 boy Wesley $700
    1 boy Jim $800
    1 boy Lewis $700
    1 girl little Nelly & old Nelly $800
    1 boy Bob $1200

     I was so overwhelmed that I just had to sit there still for a moment to digest the document I was viewing. I was amazed as well as sad. The amazement came from the fact that I had documented my Davis ancestors during the slavery era, but the sadness came from when I saw how my enslaved ancestors were listed in that inventory among horses, cows, household items, and etc. with a price value beside their names. 

(3) Where in South Carolina did they come from?

     In an oral history interview with my maternal grandmother's first cousin, the late Sammie Lee Davis Hayes, she shared with me the following about her grandfather Hector's history, "I remember Grandpa Hector telling us how they were brought to Mississippi in wagons from South Carolina."  Cousin Sammie Lee was accurate; census records verified that claim.  She further relayed, "I remember Uncle Jack (her great-uncle) well, and he and Grandpa Hector had a first cousin named Cut-n Wesley Johnson, who was also brought to Mississippi with them from South Carolina.  Cut-n Wesley and Grandpa Hector were real close like brothers."  Undoubtedly, Cousin Wesley Johnson was "boy Wesley" on the slave inventory.  Like my Davis ancestors, Cousin Wesley also took a different surname after slavery - Johnson.  Where in South Carolina did they come from?

     To try to find the answer to that important question, I viewed the 1850 South Carolina census index. There were five John Burnetts living in different counties in South Carolina. Luckily, I found John & Anna Burnett residing in the Saluda district of Abbeville County, South Carolina. I then checked the 1850 Abbeville County slave schedule and found John Burnett with 18 slaves.  Slave schedules only report the names of slave-owners and the age, sex, and color of each of their slaves.

     Looking more closely at the schedule of John Burnett’s slaves in 1850, I noticed the unique way the census enumerator listed them in the slave schedule. An adult female was listed first with eight much younger slaves (children) listed after her.  She was my great-great-great-grandmother, Flora Davis. A second adult female slave, likely Nelly, was listed next with eight much younger slaves (children) listed after her. John Burnett obviously had owned two adult females and their 16 children collectively.  Since there was not an adult male slave, Flora's husband, my great-great-great-grandfather Jack Davis Sr., was not enslaved by John Burnett in 1850. Where was he?  Hmmmm......

(4) Why did they change their surname to Davis?

     In the 1850 Abbeville County census, I discovered something that really caught my eye. There was a Davis family living in the same neighborhood as the Burnetts.  The family was headed by a man named Ephraim Davis. I checked the 1850 Abbeville County slave schedule to see if Ephraim Davis had owned any slaves. He had five slaves; one was a 35-year-old male which matched the profile of Jack Sr.  More questions entered my mind. Did Ephraim Davis “own” Jack in 1850?  Could Ephraim Davis be the person from whom the Davis name came from?  More research will be done to uncover this mystery.  If Ephraim Davis was the one, he undoubtedly sold Jack Sr. to the Burnetts before they migrated to Mississippi with Flora and her children so that Jack Sr. would not be separated from his family.  After slavery, Jack Sr. and his family decided to take the Davis surname instead of Burnett.


     As former slaves increased the number of their public transactions after 1865, their surnames had to be written into a record – whether as depositors in one of the Freedmen’s Banks, as signers or X-markers on a labor contract, as interviewees of the 1870 census enumerator, or as couples getting married by a county clerk. An in-depth research of these records, as well as the genealogy research of many African-American families, will show that many desired to take a surname that differed from their last enslaver. This revelation dispels the myth that the surname of an African-American most likely represents the surname of the owner whose farm our ancestors were living on at the time of Emancipation. In registers recording 360 marriages at Davis Bend, Mississippi in 1864-1865, only a few of the enslaved carried the names Quitman, Jefferson, and Davis, the surnames of the prominent Davis Bend planters. Many African Americans' desire to detach themselves from their last enslavers by rejecting their surnames undoubtedly symbolized the independence that they longed to have for many generations.

My Research Articles
Tips to Uncover Your Family's Story 
Name Discrepancy Unlocks Ancestral Doors

Playing the Name Game
Boom! The Brick Wall Came Crumbling Down!

Gain in-depth insight about African-American Genealogy from
Mississippi to Africa, A Journey of Discovery and

Click book cover for more information about this fascinating book.


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