Slave name

A slave name is the personal name given by others to an enslaved person, or a name inherited from enslaved ancestors. The modern use of the term applies mostly to African Americans and West Indians who are descended from enslaved Africans who retain their name given to their ancestors by the enslavers.

Changing from a slave name to a name embodying an African identity became common after emancipation in the 1960s by those in the African diaspora in the Americas seeking a reconnection to their African cultural roots.

Ancient Rome

In Rome slaves were given a single name by their owner. A slave who was freed might keep his or her slave name and adopt the former owner's name as a praenomen and nomen. As an example, one historian says that "a man named Publius Larcius freed a male slave named Nicia, who was then called Publius Larcius Nicia."[1]

Historian Harold Whetstone Johnston writes of instances in which a slave's former owner chose to ignore custom and simply chose a name for the freedman.[2]

African Americans

A number of African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans have changed their names out of the belief that the names they were given at birth were slave names. An individual's name change often coincides with a religious conversion (Muhammad Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay, Malcolm X from Malcolm Little, and Louis Farrakhan changed his from Louis Eugene Walcott, for example)[3][4] or involvement with the black nationalist movement (e.g., Amiri Baraka and Assata Shakur).[5]

Some organizations encourage African-Americans to abandon their slave names. The Nation of Islam is perhaps the best-known of them. In his book, Message to the Blackman in America, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad writes often of slave names. Some of his comments include:

  • "You must remember that slave-names will keep you a slave in the eyes of the civilized world today. You have seen, and recently, that Africa and Asia will not honor you or give you any respect as long as you are called by the white man's name."[6]
  • "You are still called by your slave-masters' names. By rights, by international rights, you belong to the white man of America. He knows that. You have never gotten out of the shackles of slavery. You are still in them."[7]

The black nationalist US Organization also advocates for African-Americans to change their slave names.[8]

Other references

White singer Sinéad O'Connor stated in 2017 that she had changed her legal name to Magda Davitt, saying in an interview that she wished to be "free of the patriarchal slave names.”[9] On her conversion to Islam in 2018, she adopted the Muslim name Shuhada' Sadaqat.[10]

See also


  1. Roman Nomenclature at
  2. Johnson, Harold Whetstone; Johnston, Mary; Names of Freedmen; 1903, 1932;
  3. "Louis Farrakhan Biography". Database. Retrieved 2011-10-20.
  4. "Muhammad Ali Biography". Database. Retrieved 2011-10-20.
  5. Deburg, William L. Van, "Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan", NYU Press (1997), p. 269, ISBN 0-8147-8789-4
  6. Muhammad, Elijah; Message to the Blackman; Chapter 24;
  7. Muhammad, Elijah; Message to the Blackman; Chapter 34;
  8. "NGUZO SABA (The Seven Principles)" From : US Organization website
  9. "Sinead O'Connor's mother 'ran a torture chamber'". The Independent. 2017-09-12. Retrieved 2019-10-25.
  10. "Sinead O'Connor (Shuhada Sadaqat): 'I'm rebuilding life' | The Point Of Everything". Retrieved 2019-10-25.
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