The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 32,497 black Americans with Spencer as their last name. That represented 23% of the total of 139,951 entries.
This article compares census numbers before and after the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Spencer in the last three centuries.
We end with a review of early records of black military service in the United States.
Spencer 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 Spencer 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 348 people named Spencer who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 99 were recorded as mixed.
Because they are in the main federal census, we know that they were free citizens.
There was a total of 17,155 free citizens named Spencer 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.
4,235 people named Spencer were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 503 as mixed.
There was a total of 28,516 people with the name.
Spencer 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 7,988 people with the last name Spencer as black within a total of 45,041 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 11,741 people named Spencer as black within a total of 70,373.
Historic Black Figures With The Spencer Surname
Here are some notable African Americans in history with Spencer as their last name.
- Born: Early 1800s
- From: Maryland
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.
John Spencer and his son William appear in the book as part of a trio of fugitives who escaped from Maryland but settled in New Jersey where they found work.
However, they soon learned that hunters were searching for them. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that a bounty would be paid if they were caught and returned to Maryland.
The three men found their way to the Underground Railway committee in Philadelphia to appeal for help to get to Canada.
You can read the full account in our excerpt on John Spencer and The Underground Railroad.
Anne Bannister Spencer
- Born: 1882
- From: Henry County, Virginia
- Died: 1975
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.
Anne Bannister was educated in a seminary in Lynchburg. After graduating in 1899, she married a fellow student, Charles Spencer, and taught in high schools.
Anne constantly wrote poems on scraps of paper through her twenties and thirties. But her talent was only discovered when she was establishing a local chapter of the NAACP.
She invited the writer and NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson to speak at her house in 1919. He found her poems and arranged for some to be published. She was forty when the first poem appeared in print.
Although living in Virginia, Anne Spencer is considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance. Her poems touched on themes of race and nature.
Perhaps “White Things” is the best known.
Other black poets
Here are some other notable African American poets in history:
Spencer In Black Military Records
Military records are a rich resource of for family history research. Here are examples of the Spencer 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 Spencer was in April 1867. James T Spencer was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in April 1867 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
One of the later entries was in January 1910. Jacob Spencer was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry. You can see some soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry in the photo above from 1918.
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.
John H Spencer
One of the earliest entries for Spencer was for John H Spencer from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachussetts. He enlisted in September 1864 at New Bedford when he was aged 24.
The record shows that John H was assigned on October 1864 to the ship Brooklyn.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Mariner. 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 Washington in June 1864. Samuel was aged 22 and was from Baltimore, Maryland.
He was assigned to the ship Wyandank on September 1865.
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.
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.
Roy Spencer graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in February 1943. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Roy was from Tallahassee, Florida.