Willis As An African American Last Name

The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 40,438 black Americans with Willis as their last name. That represented 31% of the total of 130,152 entries.

This article tracks their numbers in the census since the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Willis.

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.

5,353 people named Willis were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 646 as mixed.

There was a total of 23,077 people with the name.

Willis 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 11,392 people with the last name Willis as black within a total of 40,420 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 16,222 people named Willis as black within a total of 66,522.

Historic Black Figures With The Willis Surname

Here are some notable African Americans in history with Willis as their last name.

Edward Willis

  • Born: 1870
  • From: Kentucky
  • Died: 1930

Edward Willis trained horses for a horse breeder in Frankfort, Kentucky, before moving to Lexington. There, he worked at Patchen Wilkes Farm for the New York millionairess Mrs. W.E.D. Stokes.

Helen Stokes was the wife of a horse breeder and she had a string of trotting horses. Willis set some of his world records with Stokes’ yearlings.

While still working for Stokes, Willis started editing the local Lexington newspaper in 1912. He double-jobbed for several years before taking over as publisher.

Other notable black publishers

Miriam DeCosta Willis

  • Born: 1934
  • From: Florence, Alabama
  • Died: 2021

Miriam DeCosta was the daughter of two college lecturers and grew up on campuses in the South. She was a top student at Wellesly College, where she met and married Russell Sugarmon, the civil rights attorney.

She did a PhD in Romance languages at John Hopkins and lectured in Spanish at Memphis State.

Miriam was a committed activist and member of the NAACP. She organized college sit-ins and was arrested many times on protests. She started teaching at Howard University in 1970 and finished her academic career as a professor at the University of Maryland.

Her second husband, Archie Willis, was also a civil rights lawyer. Archie Willis became a state representative for Tennessee, the first African American to do so in seventy years.

Willis In Black Military Records

Military records are a rich resource of for family history research. Here are examples of the Willis surname from several different military services.

Buffalo Soldiers

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 Willis was in February 1874. Alexander Willis was a Recruit in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in February 1874 at Fort Sill, Indian Territory.

One of the later entries was in May 1915. Findley Willis was a Sergeant 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.

John J Willis

One of the earliest entries for Willis was for John J Willis from Westbury, Long Island. He enlisted in September 3 1862 at New York when he was aged 31.

The record shows that John J was assigned on September 30 1863 to the ship Daylight.

His occupation before enlisting was as a Laborer/Waiter. His naval rank was Landsman.

“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.

John Willis

One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted at New York in September 3 1862. John was aged 31 and was from Westbury, L.I., New York.

He was assigned to the ship Mount Vernon on November 6 1863.

His occupation before enlisting was as a Laborer/Waiter. His naval rank was Landsman.

“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.