The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 43,371 black Americans with Kelly as their last name. That represented 16% of the total of 267,394 entries.
This article tracks their numbers in the census since the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Kelly.
We end with a review of early records of black military service in the United States.
After The Civil War
The 1870 census was the first survey after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1850 and 1860, only free African Americans were recorded in the census. The many enslaved were omitted.
From 1870 onward, all black Americans were included.
4,462 people named Kelly were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 667 as mixed.
There was a total of 67,627 people with the name.
Kelly In The 1900 And 1940 Census
The mixed category was dropped from the census in 1900, so we just need to look at the black numbers this time.
The 1900 census recorded 8,192 people with the last name Kelly as black within a total of 90,897 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 14,460 people named Kelly as black within a total of 151,379.
Historic Black Figures With The Kelly Surname
Here are some notable African Americans in history with Kelly as their last name.
- Born: 1880
- From: Raleigh, North Carolina
- Died: 1962
O’Kelly and Kelly are two spelling variants of the same name, which is why I cover people of either name in this article.
Roger O’Kelly caught scarlet fever in 1889. The illness rendered the nine-year-old deaf and mute. He attended a black school for the deaf and blind and got a degree from Shaw University.
A football injury left him blind in one eye, but he was still able to get a law degree from Yale in 1912. He established a legal practice in Raleigh and serviced the black business community for decades.
- Born: 1920
- From: Washington, D.C.
- Died: 2012
Leontine Turpeau’s father was a Methodist minister. She married and divorced a man who would become a minister. Her second husband, James Kelly, was also a minister.
Kelly taught in Virginia while studying Divinity and became a Deacon in 1972. In 1984, she was the first black woman to become a bishop in the United Methodist Church.
Kelly faced obstacles from traditionalists who quoted St. Paul to reject female leadership in the church. Kelly had a simple response: “Paul didn’t call me. God did.”
Leontine was a trailblazer but she was also following in the footsteps of someone like Jarena Lee who broke with social conventions and became a traveling preacher in the nineteenth century.
Kelly In Black Military Records
Military records are a rich resource of for family history research. Here are examples of the Kelly 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 Kelly was in December 1867. George C Kelly was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in December 1867 at Wilson Creek, Kansas.
One of the later entries was in August 1914. Saint M Kelly was a Private 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 Kelly was for Julius Kelly from New York, New York. He enlisted in June 11 1862 at New York when he was aged 16.
The record shows that Julius was assigned on April 1 1863 to the ship Huntsville.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Hostler. His naval rank was Landsman.
“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.
One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted at Philadelphia in March 1 1865. William was aged 21 and was from New York, New York.
He was assigned to the ship Pinola on July 1 1863.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Mariner. His naval rank was 2nd Class Boy.
“2nd Class Boy” was a rank assigned to young men who were under eighteen when they enlisted.
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. They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.
Earl Kelly graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in September 1945. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Earl was from Los Angeles, California.
Thomas Kelly came from Pasadena, California. He graduated in June 1945 as a fighter pilot.
You can find a full list of graduate pilots in our list of Tuskegee Airmen.