Why Do African Americans Have Irish Last Names?

Eddie Murphy, Shaquille O’Neal, Tony Morrison. These are just three famous black Americans with last names that are Irish in origin.

Of course, there are many ordinary African Americans who have Irish surnames. There are six broad reasons why.

The reasons detailed below are not in the order of which was the most common. I haven’t seen a deep historical investigation that could stack up the probabilities. That would be difficult to assess.

(1) Descended From Slaves Who Took The Names Of Their Owners

After the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, some newly freed people took the name of their former owners.

There are so many reasons for this.

For some, it was a way of leaving a marker for siblings, parents, and children who were sold away from a plantation. Taking the name of the former owner was also a way of marking where you were from.

For some, they knew that the slave owner was their father or grandfather. It was a way of marking this fact.

And for many, they had more important things to think about than finding a different name. Simple survival took precedence.

Irish slave owners

It’s true that many Irish immigrants to the United States were too poor to own slaves. Many settled in the cities and worked as laborers.

But there were plenty of plantation owners and overseers of Irish descent.

Overseers worked for the plantation owners and managed the slaves. In some cases, overseers also owned slaves who they rented out to the plantation.

Here are some names of Irish-born overseers from the 1850 census of South Carolina:

  • Robert Keown
  • John McDowel
  • Michael McGrath
  • Thomas McNeil

(2) Escaped Slaves Chose New Names To Evade Capture

typical illustration with a fugitive advertisement

Before emancipation, many escaped slaves choose new names to evade capture.

Many slave owners posted “fugitive” advertisements in newspapers that named those who risked their lives to escape north.

There are a hundred possible reasons for a specific choice of name. Someone might take the surname of a black person that they knew to be free. This could help with evasion.

Others might choose a name that sounded as different as possible from their enslaved name.

Others may have chosen the surname of someone they admired.

And some took a name suggested to them by members of the Underground Railroad who helped them on their way.

(3) A Freed Ancestor Chose An Irish Name Unrelated To Enslavement

After emancipation, many newly freed people chose to change their names from the one assigned to them.

Again, the choice for many was to honor someone they admired.

(4) Descended From An Irish Ancestor, But Not Through Enslavement

This is as simple as having an Irish ancestor who had nothing to do with slavery.

The genealogy website, Ancestry.com, ran a survey in 2022 that showed that over half of Americans don’t know the names of all their grandparents.

So, it’s not surprising that some African Americans had an Irish great-grandfather who provided his surname without a history to go with it.

(5) Adopted Or Fostered By A Family With An Irish Surname

People can have a biological and an adopted surname.

There may be African Americans with an African biological surname who are adopted by a family with an Irish surname. Of course, that family may well be African American.

(6) Married To A Man With An Irish Last Name

Nearly ten percent of people in the 2020 U.S. census identified as Irish American.

Let’s say that half are men. That’s about sixteen million Irish American men in the country.

Some must have captured the hearts of an African American woman.

Examples Since Emancipation

This website has a series of articles that looks at the last names of African Americans since they were recorded in the census after Emancipation.

Here are some articles about names that originated in Ireland: