Proposal for Naming Conventions for U.S./Colonies Slaves

+35 votes

Hello WikiTreers! The U.S. Black Heritage Project has been working on this document for some time and feel it is ready to be proposed and voted on. Please read the entire linked help page so you fully understanding our reasoning for each part of the naming conventions.

Should this be the official rule for creating an LNAB for those enslaved in the USA?

*Please keep in mind that these conventions are currently for the USA only since we can't claim to understand the needs for other countries and cultures. 

*Please keep in mind that The LNAB for those enslaved was a fluid thing and isn't a concept that existed in the way we normally think of it (LNAB is what is found on a document). You may need to adjust your thinking away from the conventional view of an LNAB.

*Please do not get hung up on terminology at this time (slave vs enslaved) and vote only on the content of the document.

*Please vote on ONE of 3 choices below by UPVOTING the choice. You may leave a comment as you wish, but definitely leave a comment if you disagree with any part of this document and/or wish to see something changed. Otherwise we can't make any helpful changes.

*Please do not comment below my name here unless you have a question. I would like to leave this space open for questions  that might clarify the issue.

Thanks so much!

in Policy and Style by Emma MacBeath G2G6 Pilot (984k points)
edited by Emma MacBeath
I have pondered this issue for some time and I think the solution proposed here is brilliant.

Thanks, Emma, and everyone who helped; this is a very well done document. 

Now I have a question - this concern Bets Carter. She is listed as "Betty Carter" when she gets married just days after being released from slavery, to Tobe Carter, on 25 December 1865. It is shown in a segment of Finding Your Roots (Bets is a maternal ancestor of John Lewis) that Bets and her husband were owned by a Joel Carter, and are mentioned by name in a memoir written by his daughter. So, following the conventions, her last name should be Carter? 

As it turns out, I entered her as "Williams" because she is mentioned as "mother Elizabeth Williams" on records of her children. But that's not the name she used immediately after the end of slavery, nor the name of her last owner. That name is Carter. Is there enough reason to change her LNAB to Carter? 

Though Williams is mentioned on a couple of records I don't know where it comes from.

I'll echo Jack's comment: the proposal is well written and well thought out.  I think that the use of surnames that will best help descendants to find their roots is brilliant.

Looks like a good working model, this sentence may need a bit of correction:

An LNAB for slaves or those formally enslaved should be assigned in this order.  Shouldn't it read Any LNAB for slaves or those formerly enslaved... ?

Thank you Danielle, you are the first to catch those typos.

Isabelle, that's a tough one. If her children say her name was Williams, I would probably stick with that as the LNAB. Oral history is perfectly acceptable as a source.

An LNAB would be correct, because you pronounce the L as beginning with the vowel "e".  If you spell it out it would be "a Last Name At Birth".

Yes, I kept the "An." It looks and sounds weird, but is grammatically correct.
Thanks to all of you who were involved in developing these guidelines. They are outstanding.
Some of this is similar to what the Beyond Kin Project ( suggests as workarounds in personal databases. Are you aware of that project?
Hi Anna, yes we are very aware of Beyond Kin and using some of their framework in what we do. We looked at their naming conventions when creating ours.

6 Answers

+5 votes
Best answer
This has been up for almost a month and has clear support so it's now official!

Thanks, Emma and everyone who contributed towards bringing this discussion about!
by Eowyn Walker G2G Astronaut (2.0m points)
selected by Emma MacBeath
+74 votes

Please UPVOTE on this choice if you AGREE with these Naming Conventions for U.S. Slaves as they are written.

by Emma MacBeath G2G6 Pilot (984k points)
+2 votes

Please UPVOTE this choice if you agree with these Naming Conventions for U.S. Slaves with the modification you propose in a comment below.

by Emma MacBeath G2G6 Pilot (984k points)
We need to start somewhere, and this is good for initial setup of profiles.  We can move forward with this.

However, we need to add a further convention for later name changes because - while it was hardly uncommon - the majority of freed people had nothing further to do with their former owners after emancipation, including their surname.  People who took the last name of an owner or plantation are just the low hanging fruit for genealogists.  They don't accurately reflect the population.  Also, there needs to be a convention for first name changes, too, as forced name change was common at sale.

Michael: For any person who was known or documented by more than one name, there are multiple data fields available for recording all of their multiple names. The LNAB gets particular attention in WikiTree because it is the principal way that a profile is indexed in WikiTree, and changes to the LNAB can be disruptive. Changes in the other name fields are less momentous.

In addition to the LNAB, we can use the Current Last Name for the last name a person was known by (often the name on the gravestone), the Other Last Names field can be used for additional names (including names the person might never have used in their lifetime, but that appear appear in more recent lists or publications). For first names, we have the Proper First Name field, the Preferred Name field, and the Other Nicknames field. Although this last data field is labeled Nicknames, site visitors do not see that label, and this data field can be used for any and all additional names and spelling variations. I strongly urge people to use the available data fields to record all of the known names for a person so those names will show up in name search if someone comes here looking for them.

Hi Michael, there is a section on the help page for changing the LNAB once new information is found

It is definitely not the intention of these conventions for the person to be "stuck" with a slave holder's last name when that isn't a name they would go by. The name is merely a temporary placeholder until the correct or better LNAB is found.

As far as first name goes, the original first name could be placed in the biography or nickname field and the most current first name used in the regular name fields.

+3 votes

Please UPVOTE this choice if you do NOT agree with these Naming Conventions for U.S. Slaves as they are written.

by Emma MacBeath G2G6 Pilot (984k points)
There was a black family connected with the surname Sullivan, living on the farm with my Sullivan ancestors in South Carolina since the 1830's.  When I asked if this was a family of slaves, my dad said no.  My ancestors were very, very poor share-cropers and couldn't afford slaves. (Looking at their pictures, it doesn't look like they could catch a chicken, they were so skinny.)  They all worked in the cotton mill, and they all worked on the farm together.  My dad remembers playing with these kids at family reunions.  My dad suspects they just adopted the Sullivan surname simply because they were living on the same farm.  Not because they were slaves owned or previously enslaved by my family.  My DNA came back with 1% Camaroon and 1% Nigerian, so I'm sure these families blended at some point way back.  Just a thought for your naming project.
+1 vote
Neither here nor in the guidance document is a demographic description of the "committee" who developed the guidance provided. Such a description might include describing who was on the team and characteristics such as volunteer, team leadership, etc., how many people, and if it's at least six people, what % are descendants of slaveholders, and % descendants of enslaved persons. And any other description that might be important for persons evaluating the appeal of the guidelines.

Next. Probably beyond the scope for now, but how will users add these profiles? The general goal of WikiTree is that we strive to add profiles that connect to one world tree. The majority of enslaved persons were kidnapped/sold and may otherwise been deprived of contact, and in many cases, knowledge of their parents and ancestors...

Since the guidance focuses on defaulting to an identity that leverages the slaveholder data, is a link as a nonbiological dependent with the slaveholder being proposed (or is that decision to come later)? Having said that, it is difficult to enter a new person without having some sort of linking (or in this case, anchor) ancestor to start.

Also, the example that Isabelle gave, for example, might ideally have the LNAB that was revealed in later records, but the protocol might also be to preserve the other last name of Carter, since that name appears to have been used. This highlights the plausibility question: perhaps a provisional LNAB works better for these profiles, as it is rare that a user will have completed exhaustive research before creating the profile,  and a later discovery might affect the true LNAB, then moving the provisional one to other last names.

I applaud you for taking this on, and I think the outined approach "ups the game" from what the Beyond Kin Project has deployed, as it respects the distinction that slaveholder LNAB may be all that we have to distinctly identify enslaved persons, while also creating the opportunity to have defining documents such as Wills and Census Slave Schedules stored as such, rather than substituting a spousal link for those, or a plantation name, as a marital entity.

The scope of this project is huge (new profiles in the millions are possible). Once everything on methods and conventions is set, we'll also need to determine whether enslaved person profiles need some sort of project management to keep them from being deleted or disassociated from their slaveholders, otherwise, the chances of researchers finding their enslaved person ancestors on WikiTree, leveraging the slaveholder information, gets lost.

I am very excited to see the steadfast progress thus far, and I look forward to the days when researchers are able to visualize this enhanced organization of the data that hopefully increases the frequency of successfully identifying ancestors who were enslaved persons.
by Porter Fann G2G6 Mach 6 (66.9k points)
Hi Fann, I apologize I did not answer your questions earlier since I was ill, but I'm going to do so so anyone coming along with the same questions will have the answers. 1) These guidelines were developed collectively as a project. No one person wrote them. The project is comprised of members at large and a couple of leaders who also happen to be members. 2) I will not answer the question regarding % descendants of slaves because no one is required to tell us this information or any information about themselves to join the project. They merely are required to work on project goals. 3) Because I wanted a wider representation of descendants, I did reach out to several people not in the project who are outside of WikiTree and are descendants. I am a genealogist and have several clients and colleagues who fit the bill. I got their feedback on this issue as well as other issues our project is working on.

Your next questions are about creating and connecting profiles. Our project is still working on this system. I sent you a message a few weeks back about joining our Google group so you could participate in the discussions. If you didn't get it, please send me a PM. Thanks!
Thank you.
+3 votes

This proposal is distinctly written for US 'consumption' so I've only just read it. Nevertheless, the US wasn't isolated, some enslaved people arrived in Britain from the US. (see for example John Walker from Virginia orginally slave, then servant and  buried with his employer Others arrived from the West Indies or from parts of Africa. All that I know of had surnames acquired after birth. I don't speak for the English project but certainly from my point of view the proposals would work well  'here'.  I would certainly have preferred  to call this man Thomas Kent; the name he used at his marriage and the name his children were baptised with,  rather than the anonymous

edit typo

by Helen Ford G2G6 Pilot (397k points)
edited by Helen Ford
That is pretty much the point. We sought to avoid creating thousands more "Unknowns" as it serves no purpose. There is certainly the hope that there will be similar projects for other countries, but at this time, there is more interest in the US-based project. I would suppose that similar naming conventions will be employed throughout the diaspora.
Hi Helen, we definitely welcome and hope other projects will adopt these naming conventions for those enslaved in their country. We chose to keep this US only at this time because we as a project could not adequately speak for other countries/cultures and their unique needs.

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