The discussion of names is immediately relevant to the history of the Reconstruction era because, as historian Douglas Egerton explains, shortly after Emancipation, “former slaves had to undertake a task unknown to free-born Americans. They had to adopt a Surname.”
As students may have learned in their previous study of American slavery, enslaved people did not officially or legally have surnames (last names); they were grouped by the names of their owners. This fact alone is sufficient to help students consider the dignity and respect that a name provides as a sign of individual identity and personhood.
Students will examine this idea further when they read the testimony of freedpeople, as we will refer to formerly enslaved people. After the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, freedpeople needed surnames in order to identify themselves for a variety of fundamental civil procedures such as obtaining a marriage license and, especially, signing an employment contract. But they also recognized the power to choose their names as a symbol of freedom and dignity they had not enjoyed while enslaved. As historian Taylor Branch writes, “Among the most joyous feelings most frequently mentioned by freed or escaped slaves was the freedom to choose a name.”
In this lesson, students will examine the testimony of several freedpeople explaining how they chose their new surnames. They adopted names from various sources; some simply took the last name of their former owners, while others adopted their names from national leaders, occupational skills, and family histories. By observing the variety of sources from which freedpeople adopted their surnames, students will begin to learn about the values, traditions, and aspirations of emancipated people in the 1860s. Students will also reflect on the ways they choose to identify themselves and the ways in which we all “place ourselves into the world.”