A slave name is a term for a name given to a person who is or has been enslaved or a name inherited from enslaved ancestors. Modern use of the term applies mostly to African-Americans who are descended from slaves and is almost always derogatory.


The vast majority of African-Americans in the United States were enslaved prior to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. During enslavement, slaves' names were assigned by their owners. Others received a name based on what kind of work they were forced to do. Some African-Americans have last names such as Cotton, reflecting when they were made to pick cotton as slaves.

After emancipation, many freedmen and -women took the surnames of their former owners as their own. Some blacks in the U.S. took on the surname Freeman, while others adopted the names of popular historical or contemporary figures of social importance, such as former presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson.

A number of African-Americans 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 and Louis Farrakhan, for example) or involvement with the black nationalist movement (e.g., Amiri Baraka and Assata Shakur).

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."[1]
  • "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."[2]

Other organizations, such as the Black nationalist US Organization also advocate for African-Americans to change their "slave names."

Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of African-Americans bear "slave names."

Ancient RomeEdit

In Roman slavery, slaves often had a single name, given at the discretion of their owner.

A slave who was manumitted might keep his or her slave name and adopt his or her former owner's name as a praenomen and nomen. As an example, one historian describes "a man named Publius Larcius [who] freed a male slave named Nicia, who was then called Publius Larcius Nicia."[3]

Historian Harold Whetstone Johnston writes of instances in which a slave's former owner chose to ignore custom and gave the freedman a name of the owner's choosing.[4]

According to Johnston, descendants of Roman freedmen frequently changed their "slave names" to conceal their ancestor's enslavement.


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