The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 67,866 black Americans with Nelson as their last name. That represented 16% of the total of 424,958 entries.
This article compares census numbers before and after the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Nelson in the last three centuries.
We end with a review of early records of black military service in the United States.
Nelson 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 Nelson 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 438 people named Nelson who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 210 were recorded as mixed.
Because they are in the main federal census, we know that they were free citizens.
There was a total of 18,716 free citizens named Nelson 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.
8,627 people named Nelson were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 1,165 as mixed.
There was a total of 48,560 people with the name.
Nelson 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 17,916 people with the last name Nelson as black within a total of 149,387 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 25,590 people named Nelson as black within a total of 260,718.
Historic Black Figures With The Nelson Surname
Here are some notable African Americans in history with Nelson as their last name.
William Nelson and his family
The Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and travel routes organized by many church and community leaders, civil rights activists, and abolitionists. Thousands of enslaved people were helped to escape from the South.
William Still kept substantial notes on fugitives who were helped on their way through Philadelphia. He published the notes in a book in 1872.
The book describes the escape from slavery of William Nelson, his wife Susan, and their son William Thomas.
William found the captain of a schooner who was willing to hide them on his vessel and smuggle them from Norfolk, Virginia to Philadelphia. This was in 1855 when Virginian sent search parties looking for hidden fugitives on ships.
You can read the full account in our excerpt on William Nelson and The Underground Railroad.
- Born: 1875
- From: New Orleans, Louisiana
- Died: 1935
The Harlem Renaissance after the First World War was a period when African American art, literature, and music flourished around Harlem.
Painters, poets, writers, and musicians established a creative hub of black culture in the United States. The movement was hugely influential on the development of black literature and art through the twentieth century and today.
Alice Moore grew up in New Orleans’ Creole community and became an activist and writer. She published her first collection of poems and short stories when she was twenty.
She was married to Paul Dunbar, Henry Callis (briefly), and finally Robert Nelson. She is known with different variants of her name, but often as Alice Dunbar Nelson.
Aside from her husbands, Alice Dunbar Nelson also had several lesbian relationships. She kept a diary, which has since been published. It reveals details about these relationships, her friendships, financial struggles, and working life.
Her poems appeared in many literary journals and anthologies. She also wrote journalistic work on topics like women’s suffrage for a journal of W.E.B. Du Bois.
“I sit and sew” is perhaps Dunbar Nelson’s best-known work.
Other black poets
Here are some other notable African American poets in history:
Nelson In Black Military Records
Military records are a rich resource of for family history research. Here are examples of the Nelson surname from three different military services:
- Black civil war sailors
- Buffalo soldiers
- Tuskegee airmen
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 Nelson was for Antonio Nelson from Norfolk, Virginia. He enlisted in June 1863 at New York when he was aged 19.
The record shows that Antonio was assigned on August 1864 to the ship Savannah.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Laborer. 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 Morris Island in January 1864. Edward was aged 30 and was from Georgetown, South Carolina.
He was assigned to the ship Philadelphia on April 1865.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Carpenter. His naval rank was 1st Class Boy.
“1st Class Boy” was the rank given to young men who enlisted when they were under eighteen.
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 Nelson was in June 1867. James Nelson was a Recruit in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in June 1867 at Fort Gibson, Connecticut.
One of the later entries was in February 1913. Marcus Nelson was a Sergeant in the Tenth 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.
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.
Robert Nelson graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in July 1943. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Robert was from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
John Nelson came from Bronx, New York. He graduated in November 1945 as a bomber pilot.
You can find a full list of graduate pilots in our list of Tuskegee Airmen.