Thursday, July 30, 2009

Black Children, Confederate Heroes

While working on a post about babies named after presidents, I came across Lavinia Meekins, a black woman in Virginia whose three young sons were named Jeff Davis (b. 1861), Robert E. Lee (b. 1864), and Andrew Johnson (b. 1867). I found this pretty confusing. Why would a black woman name her boys after the Confederate President, a Confederate hero, and the man who killed Reconstruction?

I knew I would need some context to make sense of this. Was Lavinia Meekins a single eccentric? Are these names part of a pattern? I dug into the census and found some surprising things.

I'll break this research up into several posts because the information is a little hard to digest all at once. I haven't made sense of the data yet and I'm not sure I can do that without some sources other than the census. Here are some of my initial observations:
  • Lavinia Meekins was not a lonely eccentric. Many black parents in the Confederate states named their children after Confederate heroes during the war years — Jeff Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, etc.
  • Fewer black parents named their children after Confederate heroes after 1865. White Southerners continued to give Confederate names to their children into the 20th century.
  • Some Confederate names (Jeff Davis, Stonewall) dropped off rapidly after 1865. Others (Robert E. Lee) gained in popularity after 1865.
  • At least nine families have one child named Jeff Davis and another named Abe Lincoln. Sometimes they are twins. 
  • Many white Southerners named their children after Northern heroes — U.S. Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, etc.
Over the next few posts, I will report on what I have observed, but I'm going to hold off on drawing broad conclusions for the moment. It would be simplistic to assume that just because an enslaved woman named her child "Jeff Davis" that she necessarily supported the Confederate cause. Off the top of my head, I can think of several alternative explanations:
  • Perhaps masters named children and enslaved parents had no say in the matter. That would explain the sharp decline in these names after 1865.
  • Perhaps enslaved parents named their children after Confederate heroes to feign docility. If this were the case, I would expect parents to rename/nickname the child after the war, which doesn't account for names on the 1870 census (unless feigning docility was still necessary during Reconstruction).
  • Perhaps some slaves really did support the Confederate cause. In any group of 4 million people, you're bound to find a range of political opinions. It's not hard to imagine that some people might prefer to preserve the status quo rather than gamble on an uncertain future.
  • Perhaps people named their children names from the news, regardless of the political associations. You see this in recent naming patterns when awful hurricanes cause bumps in popularity for their names.
  • Perhaps census-takers have odd senses of humor.
Let me say it again — these aren't my conclusions. They're initial musings and possibilities. If you have other interpretations of the forthcoming, I'm eager to hear them. I do believe that the names people give their children are markers of their values — I'm just not sure what they're trying to convey in these cases.

Data and Discussion:


kfrancher said...

Great post. I'm eager to read the data.

Allow me to offer another "musing". Perhaps the parents intentionally used Confederate hero names to increase the possibility their children would be better accepted in southern society.

Keep up the good work!

Ryan said...

Read the South Was Right by the kennedys and the Real Lincoln. We are constantly tought half truths in public schools. Many Southern blacks supported the confederacy and looked at the Union troops as invaders. They more often or not were treated horribly by the northerners. Look at shermans march, white or black, you were either killed or your livelyhood destroyed by the invaders. This was the story across the whole south, the first modern war with modern war crimes and terrorism. Its just not a convenient truth for state schools to teach.