The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 208,409 black Americans with Wilson as their last name. That represented 26% of the total of 801,882 entries.
This article compares census numbers before and after the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Wilson in the last three centuries.
We end with a review of early records of black military service in the United States.
Wilson 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 Wilson 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 2,283 people named Wilson who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 929 were recorded as mixed.
Because they are in the main federal census, we know that they were free citizens.
There was a total of 75,970 free citizens named Wilson 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.
25,993 people named Wilson were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 3,867 as mixed.
There was a total of 148,630 people with the name.
Wilson 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 57,841 people with the last name Wilson as black within a total of 270,567 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 83,335 people named Wilson as black within a total of 440,597.
Historic Black Figures
Here are some notable African American people in history who bore the Wilson surname.
- Born: 1825
- From: Milford, New Hampshire
- Died: 1900
Biographical details are a little sketchy about Harriet Adams Wilson.
Research by the renowned African American scholar Henry Louis Gates showed that the author of a novel published in 1859 was not white, as previously assumed.
The novel was titled “Our Nig, or Sketches From The Life Of A Free Black“. It was published anonymously by a Boston publisher.
Although the protagonist (Frado) is a free black woman in the North, the story recounts the oppressive life of an indentured servant. That may have led to abolitionists side-stepping the work at the time.
The semi-autobiographical novel by Harriet Wilson makes her possibly the first black American novelist. The unfinished novel of Julia Collins was serialized in a newspaper six years after Wilson’s book was published.
Some critics maintain that “Our Nig” is too autobiographical to be considered a novel. Henry Louis Gates makes a firm case that its the first African American novel. You can find it on Amazon with his introduction and comments.
Harriet had an interesting life after the novel’s publication. She found work under the name “Harriet E. Wilson” as a medium and spiritual healer.
Margaret Bush Wilson
- Born: 1919
- From: St Louis
- Died: 2009
The parents of Margaret Bush were members of their local NAACP in St Louis. After she graduated from Lincoln University in 1943, she was only the second black woman to practice law in Missouri.
She married a fellow lawyer, Robert Wilson, and specialized in real estate law.
Margaret Bush Wilson successfully brought a case to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the Missouri practice of preventing African Americans, Jewish people, and other minorities from buying homes in white areas.
Wilson served as chair of the NAACP for nine terms.
Other black lawyers in the Supreme Court
Here are some other black pioneering lawyers who argued early cases in the U.S. Supreme Court:
Wilson In Black Military Records
Military records are a rich resource of for family history research. Here are examples of the Wilson 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 Wilson was for Simeon Wilson from Norfolk, Virginia. He enlisted in April 1861 at Norfolk when he was aged 22.
The record shows that Simeon was assigned on October 1862 to the ship Pocahontas.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Barber. 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 New York in July 1864. James was aged 25 and was from Brandon, Mississippi.
He was assigned to the ship Quaker City on January 1865.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Seaman (sailor). His naval rank was Boatswain’s Mate.
A boatswain’s mate is also known as a “deck seaman”. The rank is responsible for maintaining the rigging, deck equipment, and boats. They also load cargo, fuel, and ammunition.
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 Wilson was in October 1867. Charles Wilson was a Recruit in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in October 1867 at Providence, Rhode Island.
One of the later entries was in February 1914. Leon Wilson was a Horseshoer 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.
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.
Bertram Wilson graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in May 1944. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Bertram was from Brooklyn, New York.
His combat credits said: Downed 1 Fw-190 on March 31, 1945. This means that he shot down an enemy aircraft on that date.
LeRoy Wilson came from Independence, Kansas. He graduated in September 1945 as a bomber pilot.
You can find a full list of graduate pilots in our list of Tuskegee Airmen.