The long road to civil rights included the freedom to be called by a name of one’s own choosing.
Centuries ago William Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliette” told of a pair of lovers smitten with one another but for the rivalry between their respective families, the Montagues and the Capulets. It is Juliette who passionately declares: “O be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” I’m sure you know the rest of Act II Scene II.
This thing with names is, of course, a serious matter. A few months ago I was in conversation with an acquaintance inquiring about a bit of local history and he pointed out to me that for each surname historically anchored in Liberty County there are white families and black families sharing the same name. I asked why. His response was “Well, I guess it is a carryover from slavery. Here, I know some white Varnedoes and some black Varnedoes. And I know the white Quartermans and the black Quartermans. And that’s just the way it is.”
After the Civil War the trifecta for newly freed former slaves was: land, education and the right to vote. And I will add a fourth factor: the right to name themselves. Charlesetta Byrd Jones, a native of Liberty County who now resides in Atlanta, shared that in 1865 Dembo Fleming, her great-great-grandfather, was headed to Liberty County to make a life for himself after the Civil War and while traveling he looked up and saw a bird soaring in the sky and decided at that moment that he would be called Dembo Bird. He settled in Midway’s Freed-Men’s Grove community where many of his descendants still live.
My great-great-great grandfather, a United States Colored Troop veteran of the Civil War, so as to avoid being called “Son” or “Boy” which he had been called all of his life in the antebellum years, changed his name to “Major” Martin.
There are others who feel that there is something about these old names. My good friend Stacy Ashmore Cole in Brunswick, created They Had Names website with transcriptions and summaries of Liberty County slave owners’ wills in which they listed their slave property in order to bequeath them to their heirs. A descendant of John Ashmore — yes the Ashmores of antebellum Liberty County. Stacy believes that many African Americans family histories have been erased from the historic records because of these reasons. For example, Old Toby, a slave owned by her g-g-g-grandfather, took on the Ashmore name after the Civil War. She formed the website so that African Americans, in addition to researchers like myself, may have access to broader historical data such as slave names. Stacy Ashmore was recently appointed the new secretary of the board at Midway Colonial Museum.
“As long as we speak their names they will live forever.” African proverb