Could there be a surname filler dedicated to persons w/out surname because they were African-American slaves?

+11 votes
I routinely create profiles, if they don't exist, for persons I find named in documents, and yet I tend to not do this for named slaves because (1) they have only one name; (2) it's a sensitive topic, (3) I don't want to just use "Unknown" when it's a little more complicated than that.  Indeed, it's less that the name was unknown and more that it did not exist.  While some slaves may have ultimately taken the names of prior owners, something I read recently suggested that this was less common than some suppose.    Indeed, "African-American" as a surname place holder for persons found without surnames in pre-emancipation documents would seem very useful. Post-emancipation, it would no longer seem appropriate to use this.  Could a study group take this up?
in Policy and Style by Amy Garber G2G6 Mach 1 (11.2k points)
retagged by Ellen Smith

I agree that we need a better way to identify individuals whose culture did not use surnames. However, as Steven notes, tackling this issue would likely require a major programming overhaul. Thus, it is not merely a style issue and within the guideline-revising powers of WikiTree membership to solve.

Hopefully, our tech team is having regular brainstorming sessions on this issue; so maybe, someday!!wink

4 Answers

+6 votes
Best answer
While Steven is correct this is the way we’ve always done it, I agree with Amy this should be re-evaluated.

Unknown implies something can be known.

Unknown does not reflect the reality of many people both past and present for whom a last name does not exist. It is not historically accurate or culturally appropriate to use this word.

The database can be as flexible as the programmers determine is important.
by Heather Husted G2G6 Mach 5 (57.3k points)
selected by ShiraDestinie Jones
Interesting thoughts!  

It occurs to me that this question also applies to indigenous people and others who may have one name.  

The database is structured around the western notions of first and last name, and it allows for more names, but not less.  When a person has one name, it occurs to me that its not just their first name, its also the surname.  I agree with you Heather, Unknown could be misleading when the name is known.  

But how to handle this in a respectful manner without changing the database structure? Its a head-scratcher. Using the one name as LNAB would result in an Anonymous for the first name, which isn't a real solution.
That is something the tech team should scratch their heads about though, as this also falls into the category "Make WikiTree less anglo-american centered". If the team really wants an international tree, it should enable the database to accept different formats (first/middle/LNAB for anglo americans, first name only for people without a LNAB, no middle name for Dutch and Serbians, etc pp.)
I agree. This an important issue for a number of different cultures and needs to be addressed. Hope a solution can be found soon.
+7 votes

The guidance has always been to continue using "Unknown" as the LNAB. While it may be a little more complicated than just a normal 'there are no sources to verify a LNAB', this is done for specific reasons (see this link).

Using the same convention for unknown last names is important. In the long run, this clarifies things for everyone. It groups these profiles together in various alphabetical sorts. And we can program our systems to ignore profiles named Unknown in certain contexts.

by Steven Harris G2G6 Pilot (509k points)
(Moved my comment to an answer)
It's time that "guidance" was re-evaluated.  Many cultures across the globe use no "last name" as western thinking has it.

Indigenous Australians had no "last" name until recent times (and some, even now, do not have a "last" name in the "Anglo" style).

It is absolutely disrespectful to such people that we "give" them a "last" name as though they were our children, or pets.

Those Africans who were taken and sold as slaves may have had a "last" name according to their culture, but many would not have.  To force a "last" name on them is, again, disrespectful of their cultures and traditions.

Respectfully, perhaps something such as "no last name" could .. and should .. replace the horrendously incorrect "unknown" currently "required".
Where you see the system as anglo-centric, demeaning, disrespectful, and horrendous, I see the site as a collaborative outpost that has to work within set boundaries in order to function as it has for so long.

And just to be clear, I never stated that the guidelines cannot be reevaluated and/or updated. I was merely wanting to point out that it has been structured this way for specific technical reasons.

The LNAB has been set as the primary key (page name) for WikiTree profiles, so this now becomes a fundamental technical issue that has to be addressed very carefully to ensure that the site does not become a breeding ground for errors or where it will have a negative impact on existing data with a swift and rapid change. This is where precautions need to be taken, and that any changes suggested have to be clearly thought out in advance, tested, etc. To simply disregard the field or revert to "whatever the manager wants to put here is fine" will cause countless issues and errors across the system, even if they may not be readily apparent. There would also be the issues of merges, connections, etc.

So, this is a question that needs to be thought out very seriously, cautiously, and have full support of the Team - not something that can be quickly decided and voted on here in G2G.
Steven, I don't think anyone expects a change in a few hours.  I think what is wanted is a re-evaluation with discussion, allowing for input from those who care enough to post about it in G2G.  Such a discussion may also draw in others who may not normally frequent G2G.

Also, ftr, I said horrendously incorrect.  I did not use the term demeaning, even if that is what you gained from my words.  (If that was in response to my "pet" remark .. that's how many of the slaves were regarded by their "owners".  I in no way inferred that such was the case today .. and it wasn't just last names that were "given".  Even their own names were taken from them and a "decent" (aka "Christian") first name was used instead.)

I understand the need for some kind of name for the system to function, but what we are saying is that "unknown" isn't the correct one to use where there was no last name to begin with.  Unknown .. as others have stated .. says that there was a name, it's just not known.  No last name means there was never a last name (unlike Madonna, who has a last name).

This is bound to be an emotional subject for some.  Let us all try to approach it with patience, understanding and respect for each others views (even when we think they are wrongheaded) .. and I will try to use less emotive wording.  (A failing of mine, I know.)
+1 vote

See the prior G2G discussion of this issue at: Naming conventions for slaves.

See also the following from the Style Guide: Name Fields:

Special rules for required fields

Our system requires the basic first name and last name fields. They cannot be blank. This necessitates a few special case rules.

  • If the first name or last name is unknown, use Unknown in the field. Do not use Not SureNNWife of XAdopted, etc.[1]
  • If the first name or last name is uncertain, use the name it's suspected to be and mark the field as "uncertain." Do not use "Possibly X" or "Might be Y", etc.
  • In rare cases where a modern person has no Current Last Name, like Madonna, use No Last Name.
by Chase Ashley G2G6 Pilot (220k points)
Point:  Madonna HAS a last name, so that example is incorrect.  She may have a single stage name, as does Cher, but they both have last names.
+2 votes
I work on a lot of formerly enslaved persons. I try not to add a profile until I can discover a surname they actually used. True, that is not a LNAB, but the concept is modeled after the Native American Project's policy. They use the tribe as the surname, but only if they never used an "English" surname. Unknown should be used if a surname cannot be determined. It is very complicated because after Emancipation many unrelated persons chose to live together as family.

If there are other suggestions, let's hear them!
by Lucy Selvaggio-Diaz G2G6 Pilot (540k points)
I originally read the question incorrectly and though the OP wanted to create a database of first names in hopes of eventually matching up with a surname. It is very important to add a section in the slave-holder's profile when you come across the names of enslaved persons in wills or otherwise. They also need to be categorized so comparisons can be made with the 1870 US Census, Freedmens' files, etc. This is often how surnames are determined.

My favorites are those that chose one surname, then thought better of it and changed it!

Related questions

+7 votes
1 answer
+5 votes
0 answers
+9 votes
1 answer
+3 votes
0 answers
157 views asked Dec 16, 2018 in The Tree House by Saundra Stewart G2G6 Mach 5 (55.7k points)
+6 votes
2 answers
+10 votes
3 answers

WikiTree  ~  About  ~  Help Help  ~  Search Person Search  ~  Surname:

disclaimer - terms - copyright