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Early African American Names

Until recently, scholarly consensus was that early African American names did not differ significantly from those of white Americans. Distinctively Black names were thought to have risen from the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, which promoted the use of names with connections to Africa.

However, research by Lisa D. Cook and colleagues has revealed evidence of racialized names from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They identified 21 distinctly Black male names, among them biblical classics such as Abraham and Moses, and word names including Freeman and Prince.

Along with Abraham and Prince, other early African American names currently in the US Top 1000 include Alonzo, Athena, Daphne, Elijah, Isaiah, Israel, King, Phoebe, and Titus. Place names that were disproportionately popular among Black Americans in history include Boston, Jamaica, York, and Africa.

Also included here are common names among slaves, many of which were classical and had ties to the Bible or mythology, such as Keziah and Venus. Here, our list of notable early African American names.
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DaphneHeart

  • Origin:

    Greek
  • Meaning:

    "laurel tree, bay tree"
  • Description:

    In Greek mythology, Daphne was the nymph daughter of Peneus, a river god. Peneus saved Daphne from Apollo’s romantic obsessions by transforming her into a laurel tree. It is from this myth that the plant genus daphne, which contains the laurel species, gets its name.

PhoebeHeart

  • Origin:

    Greek
  • Meaning:

    "radiant, shining one"
  • Description:

    Phoebe is the Latin variation of the Greek name Phoibe, which derived from phoibos, meaning “bright.” In classical mythology, Phoebe is the by-name of Artemis, goddess of the moon and of hunting. The masculine version of Phoebe is Phoebus.

ElijahHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "Yahweh is God"
  • Description:

    Elijah is derived from the Hebrew name Eliyahu, composed of the elements ’el and yah, both of which refer to God. In the Old Testament, Elijah was the prophet who went to heaven in a chariot of fire. Elias is the related, Greek variation of Elijah.

FloraHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin
  • Meaning:

    "flower"
  • Description:

    Flora, the name of the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, who enjoyed eternal youth, is one of the gently old-fashioned girls' flower names we think is due for a comeback--alongside cousins Cora and Dora. Also the name of a saint, Flora has long been a favorite in Scotland where it was the name of the young heroine who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie make his way to France. Florence, Fiorella, Fleur, and Flower are translations, but we like Flora best of all.

AthenaHeart

  • Origin:

    Greek mythology name
  • Description:

    The given name Athena was derived from the city name Athens, which is of uncertain origins. In Greek mythology, Athena is the name of the daughter of Zeus who was the goddess of wisdom, warfare, handicrafts, mathematics, and courage, among others. She was the great patroness-goddess of the city of Athens. In the Odyssey, Homer describes her as 'sparkling-eyed Athena.'
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AmbroseHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin
  • Meaning:

    "immortal"
  • Description:

    A favorite of British novelists including Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse, Ambrose has an air of blooming well-being and upper-class erudition. It comes from the same Greek root as 'ambrosia', the food of the gods, said to confer immortality.

IsaacHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "laughter"
  • Description:

    Isaac evolved from the name Yitzchaq, derived from the Hebrew word tzachaq, meaning “to laugh.” In the Old Testament, Isaac was the long-awaited son of the elderly Sarah and 100-year-old Abraham, so old that their news provoked laughter, giving the name its meaning. Isaac is used as a given name among Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

JonahHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "dove"
  • Description:

    Jonah, the name of the Old Testament prophet who was swallowed by the whale, only to emerge unharmed three days later, is increasingly appreciated by parents looking for a biblical name less common than Jacob or Joshua, yet not too obscure. Plus, Jonah comes with a ready-made nursery-decorating motif.

WesleyHeart

  • Origin:

    English
  • Meaning:

    "western meadow"
  • Description:

    Wesley is one of a group of W-starting surname names reminiscent of the Old West that are making a comeback -- though it's not as well used as it was in the 1970s, when he ranked as high as Number 66.

ApolloHeart

  • Origin:

    Greek mythology name
  • Description:

    With mythological names rising, the handsome son of Zeus and god of medicine, music, and poetry among many other things might offer an interesting, if high-pressure, option. But if Romeo and Venus are now deemed baby-appropriate, why not Apollo? Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno might inspire some parents. And now that it's been chosen by Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, it could take off as their first son's name—Kingston—has.
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TitusHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin, meaning unknown, possibly "title of honour"
  • Meaning:

    "title of honour"
  • Description:

    Titus, once seen as a slightly forbidding Roman, New Testament, and Shakespearean name, was brought back to contemporary life in the USA by the TV series Titus 2000, increasing in popularity along with other revived ancient names like Linus and Silas.

AbelHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "breath"
  • Description:

    Abel, the name of Adam and Eve's unfortunate younger son, compensates with positive connotations: capable, competent, ready and willing.

IsaiahHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "Salvation of the Lord"
  • Description:

    Isaiah derives from the Hebrew Yesha’yahu, containing the elements yasha’, meaning “to save,” and yah, in reference to the Hebrew god. The biblical Isaiah, son of Amos, was the most important of the major prophets, with an Old Testament book named for him. He prophesized that the Children of Israel would be exiled from their homeland, but that God would bring the back.

MinervaHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin
  • Meaning:

    "of the mind, intellect"
  • Description:

    Minerva is the long-neglected name of the Roman goddess of wisdom and invention, the arts and martial strength, one of the mythology names for girls that might appeal to adventurous feminist parents.

LysanderHeart

  • Origin:

    Greek
  • Meaning:

    "liberator"
  • Description:

    Lysander is a distinctive Greek name that could be thought of as a more creative cousin of Alexander. In ancient history, Lysander was the name of an esteemed Spartan naval commander and his literary cred comes from one of the two star-struck young men in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well as one of the twin sons (the other being Lorcan) of Luna Lovegood, whom we learn about in the Harry Potter epilogue.
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CassandraHeart

  • Origin:

    Greek
  • Meaning:

    "shining or excelling man"
  • Description:

    The name of the tragic mythological Trojan princess who was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but was condemned never to be believed, Cassandra has been used for exotic characters in movies and soap operas. Ethereal and delicate, Cassandra was in the Top 70 throughout the 1990s, but is now descending in popularity.

KeziahHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "cassia tree"
  • Description:

    This lively Old Testament nature name (belonging to one of the three beautiful daughters of Job) may be missing from the current US Top 1000 list, but it ranks highly here on Nameberry — making it one to watch!

SpencerHeart

  • Origin:

    English
  • Meaning:

    "house steward, dispenser of provisions"
  • Description:

    Spencer is a name that has everything: it's both distinguished sounding and accessible, dignified but Spencer Tracy-like friendly. Picked by several celebrities (a couple of times even for a girl), adding up to an enthusiastically recommended choice.

PercyHeart

  • Origin:

    French surname from place name Perci-en-Auge
  • Description:

    Percy is an adorable old name that is finally shedding its pampered Little Lord Fauntleroy image in this new era of boys with soft yet traditionally male names like Jasper and Elijah. Originating as an aristocratic Norman name, Percy became fairly widespread in England--and to some extent in the US--as an offshoot of the fame of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

CatoHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin
  • Meaning:

    "all-knowing"
  • Description:

    Cato conjures up images of ancient Roman statesmen and southern antebellum retainers; it could have revival potential, with its 'O' ending and the current interest in the names of Greek and Roman antiquity.
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HectorHeart

  • Origin:

    Greek
  • Meaning:

    "holding fast"
  • Description:

    Previously used primarily by Latino families, this name of the great hero of the Trojan War as related in Homer's Iliad is beginning to be considered more seriously by others seeking noble ancient hero names as well--it was also the name of the knight who raised King Arthur as his own son.

VenusHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin, Roman mythology name
  • Description:

    The name of a heavenly planet and the Roman goddess of beauty and love was an intimidating no-no until tennis champ Venus Williams put an athletic, modern spin on it.

NeroHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin
  • Meaning:

    "stern"
  • Description:

    The association with the infamous Nero, the fiddling Roman emperor, would be unavoidable. But there was also the detective Nero Wolfe, hero of many mystery stories.

KingHeart

  • Origin:

    English
  • Meaning:

    "monarch"
  • Description:

    King is a name that sends a mixed message. While some might think of it as more fitting for a canine, others see it as a strong name with offbeat style and a full court of rich associations, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Elvis. King Vidor was an important early Hollywood director; King Camp Gillette invented the safety razor.

JemimaHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "dove"
  • Description:

    Jemima, the name of a strong and beautiful Biblical daughter of Job, has long been among the chicest choices of aristocratic Brits, most recently ranking at #231 there in 2017. But despite its lovely sound and peaceful meaning, this attractive name hasn't ranked in the US Top 1000 since 1893, no doubt due to the problematic association with racial stereotyping, exemplified by the Aunt Jemima brand of pancakes.
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AbrahamHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "father of multitudes"
  • Description:

    Abraham is among the most classic baby names that's still widely-used today, popular for its references to both the Bible and American history. The Biblical Abraham was the first of the Old Testament patriarchs and is considered the founding father of the Jewish people. He was originally named Abram, until, according to Genesis, he was told, "No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations."

DollyHeart

  • Origin:

    English, diminutive of Dorothy
  • Meaning:

    "gift of God"
  • Description:

    Hello, Dolly! Okay, we couldn't resist, but be warned: Most people who meet your little Dolly won't be able to either. This nickname-name, rarely heard since whatever decade Dolly Parton was born, is singing a fashionable note again along with sisters Dottie and Dixie; it was chosen for one of their twin girls by Rebecca Romijn and Jerry O'Connell.

SabinaHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin
  • Meaning:

    "Sabine"
  • Description:

    Sabina is a sleek but neglected name (possibly due to The Rape of the Sabine Women) from an ancient Roman tribal name that's well worth consideration. The equally alluring Sabine is heard in France. Related names include the more popular Sabrina or Serena. All are equally lovely. There have been characters named Sabina in Thornton Wilder's play The Skin of Our Teeth and the Milan Kudera novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

AlonzoHeart

  • Origin:

    Italian diminutive of Alphonso
  • Meaning:

    "noble, ready"
  • Description:

    Alonzo is dashing and debonair, with a large measure of Latin flair.

MosesHeart

  • Origin:

    Egyptian
  • Meaning:

    "delivered from the water"
  • Description:

    Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin's choice of this white-bearded Old Testament name helped bring it into the modern age, along with brethren Elijah, Isaiah and Isaac. User-friendly nicknames include Moe and Mose.
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CasparHeart

  • Origin:

    Persian, variation of Gaspar
  • Meaning:

    "keeper of the treasure"
  • Description:

    After half a century, this otherwise feasible name has at last started to lose its link to the friendly ghost; it certainly didn't scare model Claudia Schiffer, who chose it for her son, as did Atomic Kitten Jenny Frost. Iconoclastic namer Jason Lee switched genders and called his daughter Casper. Also related to the revived Jasper, Caspar seems headed towards the path to a similar resurgence.

DesdemonaHeart

  • Origin:

    Greek
  • Meaning:

    "ill-starred"
  • Description:

    Desdemona is as Shakespearean as a name can be, but because the beautiful and innocent wife of Othello came to such a tragic end, her name has been avoided for centuries. But at this point in time, there might be some adventurous parents willing to overlook that.

PascalHeart

  • Origin:

    French; English
  • Meaning:

    "of the Passover; Easter"
  • Description:

    The French-accented Pascal was historically used for sons born at Easter, and can make an interesting choice for a boy with Gallic roots arriving around that holiday.

DinahHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "God will judge"
  • Description:

    As the song says, "Dinah, is there anyone finer?" Dinah is a charming, underused Old Testament name, long shunned for its old slave-name stereotype--Dinah was the family cook in Uncle Tom's Cabin--but it has a rich literary and musical resume and would make a vivid, southern-accented name for a contemporary girl.

JupiterHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin
  • Meaning:

    "godfather"
  • Description:

    Jupiter's partner Juno has entered the mainstream, so it's possible that her divine mate could follow. But not necessarily for boys — Jupiter is over 75% female, thanks to its similarity to Juniper. Actress Ashley Tisdale welcomed a daughter named Jupiter Iris in 2021, which could shift the balance even more towards the girls.
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LucindaHeart

  • Origin:

    Variation of Lucia
  • Meaning:

    "light"
  • Description:

    Lucinda, an elaboration of Lucia created by Cervantes for his 1605 novel Don Quixote, is a pleasingly pretty alternative to Lucy. It was subsequently used by Moliere in his play The Doctor in Spite of Himself' (1666). More in tune with the times than Linda, Belinda and Melinda, it could be used to honor someone with one of those dated names.

IshmaelHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "God will hear"
  • Description:

    Ishmael is most familiar through "Call me Ishmael," the opening line spoken by the youthful narrator of Moby-Dick. Few American parents have followed that advice, though the Spanish and Arabic spelling, Ismael, ranks at Number 362. With its warm and pleasant sound, though, we could see Ishmael tagging along behind Isaiah and Isaac.

BookerHeart

  • Origin:

    English occupational surname
  • Meaning:

    "scribe"
  • Description:

    Booker would make for a very cool name, for writers, reformers, R & B fans and those wanting to pay tribute to Booker T. Washington.

TamarHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "date palm tree"
  • Description:

    Tamar is a rich, strong Old Testament name sometimes given to girls born on the holiday of Sukkoth, as palm branches were used to make the roof of the sukkah. In the Bible, there are several Tamars, including a daughter of King David and also Absalom's daughter, who is praised for her 'fair countenance'.

PrinceHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin
  • Meaning:

    "chief, prince"
  • Description:

    Prince rose to its highest ranking in a century in 2015, and the tragic death of its most famous bearer in April 2016 propelled it even higher. The Purple Rain legend isn't its only tie to pop royalty: Michael Jackson chose it for not one but two of his sons. Royal names such as King and Prince, once thought of as canine, have begun to be used by human non-royals for their sons.
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TemperanceHeart

  • Origin:

    Virtue name
  • Description:

    Not too long ago, Temperance was found only on lists of Puritan baby names.

CaesarHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin
  • Meaning:

    "long-haired"
  • Description:

    Caesar, the name of the greatest Roman of them all, is rarely used outside Latino families, where the Cesar spelling is preferred--as in activist Chavez and Dog Whisperer Millan. Although Caesar meant "long-haired", it came to be the title to denote all Roman emperors and it is from the name Caesar that many other European royal titles are derived, including Kaiser and Tsar.

IsraelHeart

  • Origin:

    Hebrew
  • Meaning:

    "he who struggles with God"
  • Description:

    Though it was used by the Puritans in the sixteenth century, the founding of the modern Jewish state in 1948 transformed Israel from a traditional favorite into an icon of Judaism.

CharityHeart

  • Origin:

    English word name
  • Description:

    Charity is one of the Big Three abstract virtue names, along with Hope and Faith, though far less widely used than the others. But as Faith, Grace and Hope grow more common, some parents are beginning to look at the more unusual three-syllable choices like Verity, Amity, Clarity and Charity, which sound much fresher and also have that pleasingly rhythmic 'y'-ending sound.

SableHeart

  • Origin:

    English
  • Meaning:

    "animal name"
  • Description:

    Sable is often associated with the Dynsaty soap opera, but it is actually a type of animal historically hunted for its fur. Sable is also used as a word for a warm, rich black color. Both associations carry hints of luxury.
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FlaviaHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin
  • Meaning:

    "golden, blond"
  • Description:

    An ancient Roman clan name, Flavia is one choice that's unusual but historic. Now a Top 60 name in Italy, Flavia has been a rarity in the US, but with the upswing in F names for girls, this could change. Seen more in literature than real life, Flavia was used as far back as an1580 romance, then in a William Dean Howells novel and as a Princess in The Prisoner of Zenda. Although the original pronunciation is FLAH-via, Flavie (as in flavor) could make a cute nickname.

BostonHeart

  • Origin:

    Place-name
  • Description:

    Unseen in the USA since 1901, Boston rocketed back into the Top 1000 in 2004 and, like other place-names such as Brooklyn, London and Paris, is now a reliable presence on the list.

AbeHeart

  • Origin:

    Diminutive of Abraham
  • Description:

    Old-time nickname that may follow in the fashionable footsteps of cronies Jake and Sam.

CupidHeart

  • Origin:

    Latin
  • Meaning:

    "desire"
  • Description:

    The name of the Roman god of love, the son of Venus, considered so romantic as to be unfit for mere mortals. Yet now that Romeo and Venus herself are fair game for modern babies, why not Cupid?

DidoHeart

  • Origin:

    Greek, meaning obscure
  • Description:

    Dido was the heroine of Virgil's Aeneid and of the opera "Dido and Aeneas," and in Roman mythology the founder of Carthage. A strong ancient name in the Juno mode, but it could have some awkward associations down the line.
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