I’ve got a new name / and it’s over in Zion — African American spiritual

I am a Kearns. My father is a Kearns. My late grandfather was a Kearns. My surname has always been a fixed thing for me, a given, a rock upon which my identity has been built. However my genealogical research reminds me that surnames for my enslaved ancestors changed.

Slave holders generally gave the people they owned first names, but not surnames. Historical sources however reveal that enslaved persons gave themselves surnames prior to emancipation.

Post emancipation things get really fluid. A formerly enslaved person might keep the surname they gave themselves while enslaved, adopt the surname of their former owner or their mother or their father, or their mother’s former owner or their father’s former owner. Perhaps they were the offspring of a white man and enslaved woman and took the name of the man they thought was their father. Perhaps they decided to give themselves a brand new name.

I’ve observed many of these scenarios in my own family. Here are three examples.

My great-great grandfather Joseph was born enslaved in 1853 in Charlotte, NC to George and Phoebe Robinson. I’m guessing Robinson was the name of their owner. In the 1870 census, the first in which formerly enslaved persons appear, he’s listed as Joseph Robinson living with his parents. By 1880 both he and his parents had claimed the surname Owens. I’ll always wonder where the Owens name came from.

1870 and 1880 US Census Mecklenburg County record for my great-great grandfather Joseph Owens. Post-emancipation both he and his parents alternated using the last name Robinson and Owens.

My great-great-great grandfather James (Henry) Johnson was born enslaved in the 1830s in Lincoln (now Catawba), NC. He first appears in the 1870 census. According to family history, his father was “Master Smyre”. I’ve validated this as true through DNA testing. According to census records, brothers John Jr., Daniel, Elias and George Smyre, were all slave owners in Catawba in that time. Any of them could have been his father, most likely John Jr.. I’ll always wonder how he came to claim Johnson as his surname as a free man. Can’t help but wonder if he was trying to tell me something. John — Son.

1870 US Census Mecklenburg, NC record for my great-great-great grandfather James Henry Johnson . His father was “Master Smyre” of Lincoln (now Catawba), North Carolina.

My great-great grandfather Gus Kerns was born enslaved around 1861 in Mecklenburg County, NC. I spent years and years trying to find him in the 1870 census, the first in which formerly enslaved persons would have appeared. Turns out I couldn’t find him because in 1870 he went by Gus Graham. Perhaps Graham was the name of his last owner. By 1880 he’d claimed the name Gus Kerns. According to family history it’s because his father was a white plantation owner with the last name Kerns. By 1900 he’d given himself a new first name as well — James. He died James Augustus “Gus” Kerns in 1939. At some point an “a” was added in the spelling of our name so most of us are Kearns now. His name — the name he gave himself — lives on.

My great-great grandfather GusKerns of Mecklenburg, NC showed up in the 1880 US Census twice. He was “working out” — when a young man is listed at home but is really living elsewhere — which is common in farming communities. The left is his family census record. The right is his working man record, reflective of the new surname name he’d given himself.
Photo of my great-great granfather James Augustus “Gus” Kerns

What names did your ancestors claim and why?

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