The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 105,145 black Americans with Edwards as their last name. That represented 32% of the total of 332,423 entries.
This article compares census numbers before and after the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Edwards in the last three centuries.
We end with a review of early records of black military service in the United States.
Edwards Before The Civil War
The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.
In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. There were three categories: white, black, and mulatto. The third term is the language of the time, and I will use mixed in this article.
If you are researching your black Edwards ancestors in census archives, be sure to check the two non-white categories. Do not assume that the people recording the information were always correct.
1850 Federal Census
There were 355 people named Edwards who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 15 were recorded as mixed.
Because they are in the main federal census, we know that they were free citizens.
There was a total of 26,566 free citizens named Edwards that year. There would be one more census in 1860 before the Civil War.
After The Civil War
The 1870 census was the first survey after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. All African Americans were included.
Those who were omitted in 1850 and 1860 because they were enslaved were now recorded.
9,908 people named Edwards were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 1,204 as mixed.
There was a total of 49,369 people with the name.
Edwards In The 1900 And 1940 Census
The mixed category was dropped in 1900, so we just need to look at the black numbers this time.
The 1900 census recorded 23,173 people with the last name Edwards as black within a total of 95,789 that year.
By the way, the mixed category returned in the 1910 and 1920 censuses. It was dropped again in 1930, but replaced with extra categories for colored and non-white in a way that seems confusing now.
This changed again in 1940 and we can simply focus on one black category.
The 1940 census recorded 34,763 people named Edwards as black within a total of 162,495.
Historic Black Figures With The Edwards Surname
Here are some notable African American people in history with Edwards as their last name.
- Born: About 1828
- From: Manchester, Chesterfield County, Virginia
- Died: 1881
Ballard Edwards was born to free parents in Chesterfield County, Virginia. He became a brick mason and opened a school in his hometown of Manchester. He was a church leader in the African American community.
Edwards acquired property in the city and was a prosperous man. He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1869.
He unsuccessfully campaigned against school segregation. He also took an interest in workers welfare and education.
Other pioneering black legislators
Here are just some of the early African American legislators elected to House and Senate positions.
William J Edwards
- Born: 1869
- From: Snow Hill, Wilcox County, Alabama
- Died: 1950
William James Edwards was born on the plantation where his grandparents had been enslaved. A sickly child in an impoverished area, he defied the odds and completed his education at the Tuskegee Institute.
Inspired by Booker T Washington’s mission of education, he returned to his home and built a school less than a mile from where he was born.
He grew the Snow Hill Institute from a single log cabin to a complex of twenty-seven buildings. Many black generations were educated through his school.
You can read more in our longer bio on William J Edwards, the educator.
- Born: 1937
- From: Houston Texas
Melvin Edwards attended the Phyllis Wheatley High School in Houston where he was introduced to abstract art. His parents encouraged his interests and enrolled him in art classes at the city Museum of Fin Arts.
A talented athlete, Edwards played college football while studying art at University of Southern California. He went on to teach at art institutes and colleges in California, New York, and Connecticut.
Aged thirty-three, he had a solo exhibition of his sculptures at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum. Time Magazine put him on their front cover.
However, Mel Edwards withdrew his works the following year in protest at the museum’s paltry coverage of black artists at that time. Since then, his works have been in many solo and group exhibits.
Perhaps his most famous series is called Lynch fragments, comprised of small metal sculptures designed to hang on walls.
Edwards In Black Military Records
Military records are a rich resource of for family history research. Here are examples of the Edwards surname from three different military services:
- Buffalo soldiers
- Black civil war sailors
- Tuskegee airmen
Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.
One of the earliest military entries for Edwards was in July 1867. Robert Edwards was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in July 1867 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
One of the later entries was in January 1914. Arnet Edwards was a Trumpeter in the Ninth Cavalry.
If you are researching military ancestors, there is a free index of these records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. You have to create an account on either website, but you do not need to pay for the Buffalo Soldiers archive.
Black Civil War Sailors
The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.
The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.
You can search the database on the National Parks website.
One of the earliest entries for Edwards was for Dennis Edwards from Isle of Wight, Virginia. He enlisted in July 1863 at Hampton Roads when he was aged 31.
The record shows that Dennis was assigned on March 1864 to the ship Samuel Rotan.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Mariner/Farmer. His naval rank was Seaman.
A seaman in the Navy is a sailor who is not an officer.
One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted at Skipwiths Lodge in December 1863. John was aged 19 and was from Charlottesville, Virginia.
He was assigned to the ship Louisville on July 1865.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Fieldhand/Laborer. His naval rank was Landsman.
“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.
The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.
Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. The photograph above (from the Library of Congress) shows a class in session.
They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.
Jerome Edwards graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in November 1942. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Jerome was from Steubenville, Ohio.
John Edwards came from Steubenville, Ohio. He graduated in August 1944 as a fighter pilot.
His combat credits said:
Downed 2 Me-109s on April 1, 1945
This means that he shot down two enemy planes on one day.
You can find a full list of graduate pilots in our list of Tuskegee Airmen.