Think of a popular, specifically African-American name.
Perhaps you thought of a recent hit like Aaliyah. Or maybe a ‘90s name like Devonte, or even a ‘70s favorite like Latasha. But I doubt you went further back than that, because Black and White naming patterns didn’t diverge widely until the late 1960s. If you look at popular names from earlier periods, you can’t pinpoint any of them as specifically “Black names.”
What if we look beyond the popular? Were any names or name styles, even obscure ones, specific to Black Americans a hundred years ago? And if so, how do we find them?
There’s a reason you don’t often see breakdowns of historical name popularity by race. The statistics just aren’t readily available.
The Social Security Administration doesn’t offer any racial information with its historical name stats. Census records do include both name and race, but we can’t sort the data by those dimensions. We can only look up a specific name and see the records that match. So how do we identify antique Black names?
One natural approach might be to focus on Black communities of a century ago and tally names. That would address the question “what names were popular among Black families,” but we already know the answer: John and Mary. Plus Helen, Dorothy, Albert, Louis, and all the other American hits of the time. A first step, then, is to rule out popular names that cut across the era’s social lines.
Next we have to contend with geographic differences. The time period we’re looking at is around the beginning of the Great Migration, so Black names were still mostly Southern names. Names like Mayola, Azilee,and Maebell will show up disproportionally among Black women of that time simply because they were regional choices of the South. We have to be able to look within a region and see how the names were distributed.
I cobbled together my approach from a combination of resources. First, I used Social Security data to find a set of uncommon names used in the early decades of the 20th Century. Then I turned to my old buddy Google Image Search.
Typing names into an image search can give you a quick, rough idea of a name’s usage. Some tweaking of search terms helps skew the image results away from over-photographed young celebrities and influencers. After some trial runs, I decided to narrow my focus to women’s names. Men’s names were so conservative a century ago that there was less variety to discover. Many of the rarer male names were also surnames or place names, making search results harder to interpret.
Working through my list, I got to know the names and faces of a whole generation of women. Many names yielded an overview of the population, while some were specific to surnames of a particular origin. And yes, some appeared to be specific to a race. When a name brought me to a portrait gallery of older Black women, I moved on to stage three: census records.
I looked up each name in the 1940 U.S. Census. I first scanned the geographic distribution of results to make sure they looked realistic for a primarily Black name of the period. Then I spot-checked the races listed in individual records. If a strong majority of the results were African-American, the name made the final cut.
Let me be frank: rare Southern names of the 1920s are not a fashion goldmine. Most of the names in my search set, whether Black or White, are wildly out of step with contemporary tastes. In fact, our modern style sense can’t easily distinguish among the names, finding them all simply outmoded.
I was often struck by similar-looking old-fashioned names with huge usage differences. For instance, I learned that the name Ruperta was mostly Hispanic, Wilberta mostly White, and Luberta mostly Black. Cleotha, Mozella and Pearlean were Black; Cleota, Rozella and Earldean White.
Such slim distinctions might make the racial distributions seem merely random. Yet I found that themes did emerge in the look and feel of antique Black names. They trended long, averaging over three syllables and seven letters. And certain sound and spelling elements were clearly overrepresented. Meet some common sounds of primarily Black antique names, with a selection of names to match.
|Everlena, Everline, Everleaner, Evergreen
|Cleotha, Oceola, Leotha, Ceola, Leomia, Peola
|Mozella, Azellia, Zellee, Ezella
|Lubertha, Luevenia, Luverta, Lueberta, Luretha
|Caldonia, Donetha, Aldonia, Donzella
|Albertha, Claretha, Eartha, Luretha, Aretha
|Verlean, Pearlean, Adlean, Everlean
|Cleaster, Almeter, Ruther, Doreather, Areather, Queenester
Chances are you’ve never encountered some of these names. Even in their own time, they were not typical. The most familiar of them became broadly known through Black entertainers, such as the anagrammatic singers Aretha Franklin and Eartha Kitt, or Louis Jordan’s song “Caldonia.”
It takes an effort of imagination to strip away the generations and hear the names as anything but “old.” To get a better sense of them in their own context, I headed back to the census records to look at some whole families containing these names.
What I found was a simple cross-section of Southern names from the early decades of the 20th Century. Boys’ names were highly traditional, mostly English classics with occasional regional choices like Jewel and Summers. Girls’ names were more variable, with many trendy hits of the time. Only rarely did I find siblings with distinctly Black names.
For instance, a Donzella had brothers named Phillip, Samuel and Claude and a sister Jeraldine. A Cleotha had a brother Edd and sister Lizzie. An Almeter from had a brother Frank and sisters Clara, Ethel, Catherine and Veora. There’s no sign that their parents had especially creative, unconventional tastes. Rather, they give us a little snapshot into a world where names like Almeter simply fit in.