That headline makes me squirm a little, but it’s true: I’ve found a handful of baby names on the SSA’s list inspired by racists.
Racist politicians, to be specific.
Decades ago, these demagogues used race‑baiting as a way to win elections in the former Confederate states — the same states that have only recently started to pull down their Confederate flags in the wake of last month’s horrific Charleston church shooting.
In fact, the ongoing Confederate flag controversy is what reminded me to finally post about these names, as the names (just like the flag) can be seen as symbols of either “racism” or “southern pride” depending on your point of view.
(Please note that the SSA data below refers only to male usage, and that I’ve only included state data that refers to the state in question.)
White supremacist Coleman “Coley” Blease was a politician from South Carolina:
U.S. Senator from South Carolina, 1925-1931
South Carolina Governor, 1911-1915
South Carolina Senator, 1907-1909
South Carolina Representative, 1890-1894, 1899-1901
Here’s part of an article about a speech Blease delivered regarding the lynching of Willis Jackson in 1911:
“[Blease] stated that rather than use the office of governor in ordering out troops to defend a negro brute and require those troops to fire on white citizens, he would resign from the office to which he had been elected, and would have caught the train to Honea Path and led the mob.”
Of all the men listed here, Blease (rhymes with “please”) had the biggest impact on baby names, including not one but two SSA debuts. I’d call this impressive if it weren’t so disturbing.
The baby names Colie and Blease both debuted in 1911. Colie was the top debut on the national list that year, in fact. The names Coley, Cole, and Coleman also started seeing more usage in South Carolina around that time.
13 (9 in SC)
19 (5 in SC)
19 (6 in SC)
110 (8 in SC)
9 (8 in SC)
22 (13 in SC)
18 (7 in SC)
25 (10 in SC)
120 (10 in SC)
15 (14 in SC)
21 (12 in SC)
21 (7 in SC)
26 (13 in SC)
116 (8 in SC)
17 (15 in SC)
18 (15 in SC)
23 (10 in SC)
23 (12 in SC)
102 (12 in SC)
15 (14 in SC)
16 (8 in SC)
15 (6 in SC)
19 (9 in SC)
75 (5 in SC)
20 (19 in SC)
23 (21 in SC)
19 (9 in SC)
23 (11 in SC)
69 (15 in SC)
12 (all 12 in SC)
16** (8 in SC)
9 (7 in SC)
8** (all 8 in SC)
40 (6 in SC)
**Debut on national list.
And, just to be thorough, here’s the SSDI data for these five names over the same time period. (As usual I’m only counting first names here, not middles.)
If you do want to count middle names, though, Blease was much more common than the above number suggest, as many people got first-middle combos such as…
Theodore G. Bilbo was a politician from Mississippi:
U.S. Senator from Mississippi, 1935-1947
Mississippi Governor, 1916-1920, 1928-1932
Mississippi Lt. Governor, 1912-1916
Mississippi State Senator, 1908-1912
Here’s a quote from Bilbo’s book Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, published in 1947:
“The South stands for blood, for the preservation of the blood of the white race. To preserve her blood, the white South must absolutely deny social equality to the Negro regardless of what his individual accomplishments might be. This is the premise — openly and frankly stated — upon which Southern policy is based.”
The baby name Bilbo appeared on the SSA’s list during the 1910s and 1920s, and almost all of these Bilbos were born in the state of Mississippi:
1916: 22 baby boys named Bilbo, 22 (100%) born in Mississippi
1915: 17 baby boys named Bilbo, 17 (100%) born in Mississippi
1914: 12 baby boys named Bilbo, 12 (100%) born in Mississippi
1913: 8 baby boys named Bilbo, 8 (100%) born in Mississippi
1912: 8 baby boys named Bilbo, 7 (88%) born in Mississippi
1911: 9 baby boys named Bilbo, all 9 (100%) born in Mississippi
1910: 7 baby boys named Bilbo [debut], 6 (86%) born in Mississippi [MS debut]
According to the SSA data, peak usage was in 1916. According to the SSDI data, though, it was in 1911, with 45 babies getting the first name Bilbo that year.
James K. Vardaman, a.k.a. the “Great White Chief,” was another politician from Mississippi:
U.S. Senator from Mississippi, 1913-1919
Mississippi Governor, 1904-1908
Mississippi Representative, 1890-1896
Here’s a quote from Vardaman (there were many to choose from, but this was the worst):
“If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.”
The rare baby name Vardaman is a 2-hit wonder that debuted in 1911:
1911: 8 baby boys named Vardaman [debut], 6 (75%) born in Mississippi [MS debut]
According to the SSA data, peak usage was in 1911. But according to the SSDI data there were two peaks: one in 1911 (16 babies with the first name Vardaman) and and earlier one in 1903 (20 babies with the first name Vardaman, including one with the full name Vardaman Vandevender).
J. Thomas “Cotton Tom” Heflin was a politician from Alabama:
U.S. Senator from Alabama, 1920-1931
U.S. Representative from Alabama, 1904-1920
Alabama Secretary of State, 1903-1904
Here’s a vignette about Heflin:
In 1908, while a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he had shot and seriously wounded a black man who confronted him on a Washington streetcar. Although indicted, Heflin succeeded in having the charges dismissed. In subsequent home-state campaigns, he cited that shooting as one of his major career accomplishments.
The baby name Heflin was another 2-hit wonder. It debuted 1920:
1920: 5 baby boys named Heflin [debut], 5 (100%) born in Alabama [AL debut]
According to [Hoke] Smith, it would be “folly for us to neglect any means within our reach to remove the present danger of Negro domination.” He also approved the use of “any means” to purge elected African American officeholders.
Usage of the baby name Hoke began to peter out mid-century, but during the first half of the century (when it was making the U.S. national list regularly) most of the baby boys named Hoke were born in Georgia specifically:
1916: 15 baby boys named Hoke, 9 (60%) born in Georgia
1915: 15 baby boys named Hoke, 10 (67%) born in Georgia
1914: 18 baby boys named Hoke, 11 (61%) born in Georgia
1913: 12 baby boys named Hoke, 7 (58%) born in Georgia
1912: 9 baby boys named Hoke, 8 (89%) born in Georgia
1911: 9 baby boys named Hoke, 8 (89%) born in Georgia
1910: 19 baby boys named Hoke, 16 (84%) born in Georgia [GA debut]
1909: 10 baby boys named Hoke, unlisted in Georgia
Some of these namesakes, like Hoke Smith Rawlins (b. 1931 in Georgia), got Smith as a middle name.
Murphy J. Foster was a politician from Louisiana:
U.S. Senator from Louisiana, 1901-1913
Louisiana Governor, 1892-1900
Louisiana State Senator, 1880-1892
Here’s Foster (as governor) talking about the disfranchisement of blacks under the newly approved Louisiana Constitution:
“The white supremacy for which we have so long struggled at the cost of so much precious blood and treasure is now crystallized into the Constitution as a fundamental part and parcel of that organic instrument […] There need be no longer any fear as to the honesty and purity of our future elections.”
For at least half of the 20th century (from the 1910s to the 1960s) a significant proportion of the U.S. baby boys named Murphy were born in Louisiana specifically:
1916: 69 baby boys named Murphy, 24 (35%) born in Louisiana
1915: 61 baby boys named Murphy, 36 (59%) born in Louisiana
1914: 51 baby boys named Murphy, 18 (35%) born in Louisiana
1913: 28 baby boys named Murphy, 8 (29%) born in Louisiana
1912: 41 baby boys named Murphy, 15 (37%) born in Louisiana
1911: 18 baby boys named Murphy, 9 (50%) born in Louisiana
1910: 14 baby boys named Murphy, 6 (43%) born in Louisiana [LA debut]
1909: 15 baby boys named Murphy, unlisted in Louisiana
…And the racist-inspired baby names don’t end there! Many other racist politicians from the South, even if they didn’t appreciably affect the baby name charts, still had an influence on baby names. Here are two examples:
Still other politicians, like 2-time Alabama Governor Bibb Graves, are borderline cases. Graves was a progressive politician, but he was initially elected with the help of the Klu Klux Klan, which he was a member of at the time (he later quit).
Finally, here’s the thing I’m most curious about: How did all of the namesakes accounted for above come to feel about their names in adulthood? Were they proud? Ashamed? A mix of both…?