Randall Kennedy on Civil Rights and the Dignity of People's Names

Scholar documents what people's names tell us about African-Americans history

Randall Kennedy talks with two law students during his visit to Duke Wednesday. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography

What's in a name? Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy says for African Americans demanding their rights during the Civil Rights Movement, a name was one way of declaring their dignity and equality.

Speaking at the first lecture of a five-part series on the civil rights movement at Duke Law School, Kennedy discussed how African Americans were named and named themselves before and after emancipation up to the Civil Rights era. He cited the 1963 case of Hamilton v. Alabama, in which an African-American woman, Mary Hamilton, was fined and jailed because the prosecutor addressed her by her first name on the witness stand instead of as "Mrs. Hamilton."

"I will not answer until I am addressed correctly," said Hamilton, who was a member of the Congress for Racial Equality.

Author of "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word," Kennedy gave a brief history of why naming matters, starting with the nomenclature of slaves. The first male and female slaves forced onto ships were often called "Adam" and "Eve." He said that slave records show an overlap between the naming of slaves and mules.

"Naming was an advance over perceived namelessness," Kennedy said. "To name them is to recognize their existence."

African names were too difficult to pronounce, he said. Re-naming the slaves allowed owners to "keep track of property for bookkeeping."

Kennedy said advertisements for runaway slaves reveal that the slaves most likely to have kept an African name were more likely to resist captivity.

When it seemed emancipation was imminent, slaves named their children after people and ideas that represented freedom like "Lincoln," "Freeman," and "Justice."

Kennedy said black efforts to elevate themselves through naming continued up to the civil rights movement. Post-emancipation blacks took on surnames and adopted more formal names, and insisted on being called "Mr." and "Mrs." Kennedy said many whites saw this as effrontery.

The next lectures are Feb. 14, March 28, April 8, and April 9. They are all at 12:15 p.m. Room 3041, Duke Law School. The series is part of the university's 50th anniversary celebration of the integration of the undergraduate student body.