Names from Black History: A Lasting Legacy

Written by Tracy Fey

This February, we have reflected on the individuals who have left a lasting legacy on Black history in the United States. Let’s take a look at some iconic names of Black history, the meanings behind those names, and their enduring namesakes.

Sojourner Truth

The name Sojourner comes from the English word sojourn, meaning “a temporary stay”. The word sojourn itself derives roughly from the Latin subdiurnare "to spend the day".

She was born Isabella Baumfree in New York in 1797, and spoke only Dutch until she was 9 years old. When she was emancipated as an adult, she left the city to travel the countryside and preach her message of abolition; it was at this point that she decided to change her name to Sojourner Truth.

Since her death in 1883, her legacy has been represented in numerous American namesakes, including Sojourner Truth Library at New Paltz State University; The House of Sojourner Truth at King’s College, located inside the Empire State Building; and perhaps the most true to meaning, the NASA Mars Pathfinder mission’s robotic rover named Sojourner.

Booker T. Washington

The name Booker comes from an English occupational surname meaning “maker of books”.

He was born into slavery in 1856, but from his earliest years, he was known only as “Booker”; for many slaves, it was customary of the times to not have any middle name or surname. His mother later informed him that upon his birth, she had initially named him Booker Taliaferro (a prominent family name in eastern Virginia and Maryland), but the second name never caught on. When Booker and his family were emancipated in 1865, he needed a surname to enroll in school, so he took his stepfather’s first name, Washington. Around this same time, he decided to readopt his middle name Taliaferro, and became Booker T. Washington.

As a leader in higher education and social progress, Washington has several prominent namesakes, including Booker T. Washington State Park in Tennessee; the SS Booker T. Washington, a liberty ship used in WWII; the Booker T. Washington Institutes at Tuskegee University and West Virginia University ; and fourteen Booker T. Washington High Schools around the country.

Thurgood Marshall

The name Thurgood is a contraction of the historically Puritan name Thoroughgood, literally meaning “thoroughly good”. It may also be descended from Thurgod, after the Norse god of thunder. Thurgood Marshall was indeed born Thoroughgood Marshall in 1908, but because he did not like the long spelling, he decided to shorten his name in the second grade.

As the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Marshall has many namesakes relating to American law, education, and civil rights. In 1980, The University of Maryland School of Law named their library the Thurgood Marshall Law Library. The Twelfth Street YMCA Building located in Washington D.C. , which was the first African American chapter of the YMCA, was renamed The Thurgood Marshall Center in 2000. Finally, since 1993, Puerto Rico has given the annual Thurgood Marshall Award, which is given to the top student in civil rights at each of Puerto Rico’s four law schools.