Common African American Last Names & Their Meanings

Have you ever wondered what the most common African American last names are? If so, it might fascinate you to know that Washington, the last name of our first president, is currently one of the most common African American surnames in existence. If you’re here to uncover the meaning and origin of popular African American last names, then you’ve come to the right place. To understand these common surnames, we must take a look at African American ancestry.

Let’s dive in!

Washington

In the 2000 U.S. Census, America counted more than 160,000 people with the surname Washington. Of this population, 90 percent of them were African American. To understand exactly why this surname has mustered its popularity, one must take a look into the darker layers of America’s history. As you’ve likely guessed, what we’re talking about is slavery.

Photo: Booker T. Washington
Photo: Booker T. Washington, by Frances Benjamin Johnston, c. 1895. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Origin

When it comes to dissecting the meaning behind African American surnames, the catalyst will always be slavery – or the lack thereof. Remember, once the Civil War was over, all African Americans were given a piece of humanity by way of a surname. Many chose their own, either copying another or creating one, however they saw fit.

Interestingly enough, the idea that slaves bore the surnames of their masters is a bit mythical. Very few had their master’s last name, and fewer chose to claim it once they were given their freedom. In which case, why would they choose the name Washington? A few theories:

  • Washington, an Inspiration – It’s entirely possible that George Washington and his beliefs were an inspiration to African Americans. Thus, once they were given their freedom, they chose his surname out of admiration.
  • The Association – Another working theory is that, by associating themselves with the most famous man in the U.S. (at the time), they were making a tactical decision that would benefit future generations.
  • Patriotism – Lastly, could it be that those who were given their freedom developed a sense of patriotism? If so, did they take up the name to become more “American”?

The truth is that historians don’t know why the name Washington became as prominent as it is with African Americans. The only thing they can do is theorize.

Williams

According to census records, Williams is the 16th most common last name associated with African Americans. This might come as a surprise to you, as it’s not always a surname that’s stereotyped. For many years, Williams has remained a common surname for a person of African American descent.

Photo: Bernard Williams
Photo: Bernard Williams. Credit: Erik van Leeuwen; Wikimedia Commons.

Origin

Funny enough, Williams is a patronymic form of the name William that traces its roots back to England and Wales (during medieval times). The meaning is one of possession, because Williams means son of William. Again, there are no clear connections as to why it has become such a popular surname with African Americans – but it can be theorized.

Historians believe that this was another example of newly freed African Americans choosing a name that was well rooted in the families of the U.S.

Jefferson

Hailing as the second most common African American last name in the nation, Jefferson is also a name that was quite prevalent and popular during the birth of our country. One of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson was a massive force during the War of Independence and the United States Constitution (the author), and later he became America’s third president. Like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner.

Photo: Margo Jefferson
Photo: Margo Jefferson. Credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0; Wikimedia Commons.

Origin

The history behind this name is a tad bit complicated. It’s thought to be the combination of several Old German names that were all mushed together. In the 11th century, after the name was introduced to England by the Normans, it appeared as “Geffery.” The names that were brought together to form “Geffery” were “Gaufrid” (territory-peace), “Godafrid” (god-peace), and “Galfridus” (song-peace). Thus, the patronymic surname can be effectively regarded as “keeper of the peace.”

This phenomenon is not unheard of with African American surnames. Being that they took the surnames that were – at the time – popular, many of them ended up with last names that can be traced all the way back to the early threads of Europe.

A Final Word

To look at the meaning and origins behind African American surnames is to navigate through a dark part of America’s history. The reality is that slavery is what largely introduced Africans to America, and many of them went through their entire lives with a single name given to them by their master. Sadly, sometimes, they’d even be nameless.

Once given their freedom, they were then allowed to take up any name they wanted. In which case, it begs the questions:

  • Did they choose common names because they believed in the country?
  • Were the famous Founding Fathers heroes to them?
  • Did they think associating with popular “white surnames” would be beneficial to them in society?

The reality is, although heavily speculated, records don’t necessarily give us exact answers. The reasoning behind their decisions can’t be explained and will largely remain a matter of speculation. Whether this information feeds your curiosity or helps you write a family history, keep in mind that you must dig deeply into genealogy records to learn more about your ancestors.

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