The Importance of Names

Example of a slave inventory.

Example of a slave inventory. Source: Thomas Jefferson, 1795

To build on the discussion of my last post on community engagement, it has been a goal of Archaeology in Annapolis to keep our research relevant to the present. The past is not dead, forgotten, and faceless. At the Wye House plantation, we have multiple historical documents that describe the lives of the Lloyd family–writings by them and about them. They are ancestors that are fleshed out and understood by their descendants, the current owners of Wye. With many of the descendants of the enslaved at Wye living in and around Easton, Maryland, we strive to use archaeology to bring the lives of the slaves into just as sharp a focus.

The historical documentation of slaves is sparse, and provides little information. Recently, with the help of historian Dr. Amy Speckart, I have been looking through lists that the Lloyd family kept of the names of the enslaved at each of their properties. Finding these names gives the research on the slave labor at Wye House an individual perspective, reminding us that the institution of slavery is comprised of actual people rather than anonymous “slaves.”

Names are important. With names, we give or take away power. These lists–ranging in date from 1805 to 1835–have presented me with contradictions that I’ve struggled to reconcile. Imposing English names on the enslaved was an attempt on the part of slaveholders to incorporate slaves into their dominion and ascribe a new identity. On the other hand, these given names, now attached to the descendants and survived through generations, can give us the ability to reconstruct family ties for the modern-day community.

The lists, many of which include given surnames, present an image of slavery that is at once humanizing and demeaning. They are part of account books that include the slaves among the inventory of cattle and farming utensils. Along with each name is an age, and at times, a qualifying comment. It is striking to see next to the name of 21-year old Anna Hill the words, “crippled” and “good for nothing.”

As a researcher, I’m working toward understanding these lists within their context. It was rare for the enslaved to be given family names, since this provided an individuality beyond the slaveholding family. Here, they appear to be seen as people–families–with individuality, and yet they are still recorded as though they were livestock. It is right to acknowledge the horrific reality represented by these inventories, but beyond that discussion is the opportunity to use these names to connect the past to the present. To reiterate a point from the last post, it is what we do with these names that matters. We can see them as a way in which the enslaved were subjugated, and at the same time, we can see them as a way for us to create a tangible link to the past.

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