by Eric M. Washington.
Washington may be the most important name in the United States of America. It is the name of the capital city, the 42nd state, and thirty counties (including Washington Parish, Louisiana) and fifty one cities, towns, villages, and unincorporated communities with Washington somewhere in their names. All of these names are after George Washington, the first president of the United States. Among the nearly 39 million African Americans, the surname “Washington” is the most popular. In other words, there are more African Americans with the last name Washington than any other. This makes Washington the blackest name in America. How ironic.
I found this out a few years ago when I read an article by Jesse Washington, then of the Associated Press, “Washington: The Blackest Name in America.” Washington stated that there are 163,000 Americans with the surname Washington, and ninety percent were African Americans. That actually failed to surprise me. I knew anecdotally that my name was the blackest.
Growing up in New Orleans, I knew lots of Washingtons. Around the corner from my house were Washingtons. My pastor was Thomas Nelson Washington. Out of the 800 students in my high school from 1982-1986, there were five of us Washingtons. From time to time, I would look through the White Pages to see hundreds of Washingtons listed. During all of my time in New Orleans and even as I have moved to the Midwest, all Washingtons I’ve met have been African American. I have never met a white person named Washington. This includes a couple of cousins of mine whose mother is Mexican-American. How did Washington become the blackest name?
There’s no way to be really sure about this, but after the Civil War and Emancipation formerly enslaved African Americans changed their names symbolizing casting away of the old slave order and attaining a brand new life. Enslaved persons never had family names; they received the name of their owner. The last name of an enslaved person signified another owned him or her. Enslaved siblings owned by different masters would naturally have different last names, and the name would change if sold. Though enslaved persons would have last names, it didn’t mean that they would be called by those names. Masters and others would refer to the enslaved persons first name anyway. Having the status of slave negated courtesy of being addressed by one’s last name with the title “Mr.,”“Miss,” or “Mrs.” When freedom came, many former enslaved men and women chose the name “Freeman” or “Freedman.” Others chose “Jackson,” “Johnson,” or “Jefferson.” They chose names they believed had dignity and worth as they were now eager to prove their worthiness as newly freed people. They also chose “Washington.” What would be more dignified in American society than having the same name as the first president of the country, the “father of the country”?
The most famous African-American person named Washington wrote of how he came to be known as “Washington.” In his autobiography Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington recalled how in school in Malden, West Virginia that he had to think of a last name on his first day of school:
Before going to school it had never occurred to me that it was needful or appropriate to have an additional name. When I heard the school-roll called, I noticed that all of the children had at least two names, and some of them indulged in what seemed to me the extravagance of having three… By the time the occasion came for the enrolling of my name, an idea occurred to me which I thought would make me equal to the situation; and so, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him “Booker Washington,” as if I had been called by that name all my life; and by that name I have since been known.
At the age of seven or eight, young Booker T. Washington named himself “Washington.” He never gave his readers why he chose this particular name, but it did signify a new beginning for African Americans in the era of Reconstruction.
Other than giving newly emancipated enslaved persons a new identity of sorts to match their new status as freed persons, re-naming themselves helped to found African-American family heritage. To the previous point, under slavery a last name was arbitrary, and this has made tracing African-American lineages difficult at points. If a former enslaved person changed his or her name, it may be a challenge to locate him or her on a plantation or farm. Sometimes there were a couple of enslaved persons with the same first name on a plantation or farm. Out of slavery, it becomes less difficult to trace one’s family lineage through census records.
Owing to slavery, African Americans have lost a direct family connection to Africa, though some have been able to locate an African cousin on the continent. For the vast majority of African Americans, there is left a real but vague sense of African ethnic lineage, let alone family lineage. Even Roots writer Alex Haley had to fictionalize his African lineage since the evidence of who his African foreparents were faded away by each succeeding generation of enslaved persons. In re-naming themselves, African Americans have been able to create a sense of family heritage out of slavery in which the concept of family was tenuous at best. This phenomenon reveals more of African American resilience in the midst of slavery, segregation, and overall racial oppression.
Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.