Black Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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Black is a Scottish surname primarily. It probably started out as a nickname given to a swarthy or darker-skinned person. The Scottish Picts and Celts certainly had darker skins than the invading Anglo-Saxons who may have given them that nickname.  There is an ancient fable that the Mercian Wulfricus Niger, otherwise known as Wulfric the Black circa 980, received his name after blackening his face in order to pass undetected through his northern enemies.

The Scottish Black has an English counterpart in Blake, found mainly in southern England.  Black in England and America may have German or Jewish origins.

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Scotland. The Black surname in Scotland has been principally associated with the Lamont clan of southern Argyll.  Part may relate to a family known as MacGiolla Dhuibh which which was anglicized as Black.  There were the Blacks of Garvie in Glendaruel whose head was known as MacIlle Dhuibh mor na Garbha.  And the Black name was also evident on the isles of Jura and Lismore.

An out-migration of Blacks from the region began in the 17th century. Many crossed the Irish Sea to Ulster. The novelist William Black traced his descent from a Black branch of clan Lamont which had been driven from their homelands at that time and settled in Carnwath in Lanarkshire.  They were later noted Covenanters. Still, a number of Blacks did remain.  By the 19th century sizeable numbers were at Campbelltown, including some Black fishermen who had made the reverse journey from Ulster. However, Argyll overall only accounted for 7% of the Blacks in Scotland by the time of the 1881 census.

There were also Blacks on the east coast of Scotland.  The oldest appears to have been the Blacks of Wateridgemuir in Aberdeenshire who have held land in the parishes of Logie-Buchan and Foveran since the 16th century.  Gilbert Black was a freeman of Aberdeen in 1584; while many Blacks of the 18th century were wine merchants there and the Blacks of Cloghill founded the Davanha brewery in the town in the 19th century.

Black could also be a Lowland name.  Thomas Black was born in Dunfermline, Fife in 1541 and his descendants were to be found in Edinburgh.  Dr. George Fraser Black in his Surnames of Scotland saw the Black name as common in St. Andrews, Fife in the 16th century and very common in Edinburgh in the 17th century.  The largest numbers were in and around Glasgow in the 19th century.

The Black story in Scotland – together with that of Black migrations to Ireland, America and Australia – was covered in Robyn Jessiman’s 2001 book A Clerical Tradition: The Story of Black and Related Families.

Ireland.  Black has been an Ulster name and strongly connected to Scotland.  The earliest reference to the name appears to have been on Rathlin island on the northernmost tip of county Antrim.  It
was said that the Rathlin men were led in battle in 1306 by Turlough MacIlieve whose name in English was recorded as Charles Black. There were two name references to Black at Rathlin and two at nearby Ballycastle in the 1659 Hearth records.   Black has continued as a Rathlin name, even though its population has declined precipitously since 1800, and that has encompassed the modern Irish folk singer Mary Black.  

A Black family of Belfast can be traced back to John Black from Argyll, a trooper who had fought against Cromwell in the 1650’s.  His descendants became merchants in Belfast.  A later John Black was a wine merchant who made his home in France in the early 1700’s.  His son Joseph, educated in Belfast, migrated to Edinburgh to study and is considered today the founder of modern quantitative chemistry.   Two of Joseph’s brothers, Samuel and George, held the office of mayor of Belfast no fewer than seven times between 1772 and 1789.

Some other Ulster Black families emigrated to America.  That was the case with Daniel Black who came to Massachusetts around the year 1660.  His father John died in Belfast in 1721 at the reputed age of 101.  James Black was a wool merchant in county Down in the early 1700’s.  Three of his sons – Thomas, John, and James – left for either Virginia or Pennsylvania in America.


England.  The Black name extended from Scotland into northern England and was found in the northern counties of Northumberland, Durham, and Cumberland.

Black in England could also be an adopted Jewish name.  Lionel Tcherny fled Azerbaijan for London with his family in 1912 because of rising anti-Semitism at home.  His son Max Black became a prominent figure in the field of analytic philosophy in England and America.   Meanwhile Solomon Schwartz, born to Polish parents in the East End of London in 1913, adopted the name of Stanley Black and was a very popular bandleader and music arranger in England from the 1930’s to the 1950’s.

AmericaThose with the Blacks surname in America have been primarily Scots and Scots Irish.  The first to come was probably Daniel Black who first surfaced in Essex county, Massachusetts in 1659.  Later Black arrivals came mainly to points further south.

The following were some 18th century arrivals:

  • John Black from Donegal who arrived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the early 1700’s.   A line here is thought to have led first to Georgia and then to Ashland, Alabama, a poor isolated township in the Appalachian foothills. That was where Hugo Black, the famous Supreme Court justice, was born in 1886.  
  • John Black from county Down who made his home in Augusta county, Virginia in the 1730’s; while his brother James settled in Pennsylvania.  James’s son the Rev. Sam Black was a pioneering Presbyterian minister in backwoods Virginia. Another son Joseph crossed the Alleghenies into West Virginia around the year 1780 and produced an even more remarkable Rev. Sam Black, a Methodist “circuit rider” in Appalachia.
  • various Blacks from the Isle of Jura in Scotland who migrated to Cumberland county, North Carolina near the Cape Fear river in the 1750’s.  Their family story was recounted in Elizabeth Frano’s 2004 book The Scottish Black Family.  
  • and the Black families of Rutherford and Cleveland counties in North Carolina who may have had their origin in James Black, living in that vicinity from about 1765.  It was thought that his son was Moses, the progenitor of many of the families there.  

And a couple of 19th century arrivals:

  • the Rev. John Black from county Antrim who was a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from 1800 until his death in 1849.  His son Samuel was a Pennsylvania politician appointed Governor of Nebraska territory, but was later killed in action at an early stage in the Civil War.  
  • and John Black who left Derry with his family in 1823 for Baltimore, Maryland.  His descendant S. Duncan Black was the co-founder of the Black & Decker tool company in Baltimore in 1910.

German.  Swartz and Schwartz were both German surnames for “black” in the 18th century.  German immigrants would need to decide at that time whether to integrate by adopting the anglicized Black name or to keep their German name.

Martin Swartz came to Philadelphia on the St. Andrews in 1738.  His family settled in Shenandoah county, Virginia. Black did replace Swartz in official documents for a while.  But apparently the name reverted to Swartz for all documentation by 1817.  Meanwhile Johann Schwartz arrived in Philadelphia on the Edinburgh in 1753.  His family settled in North Carolina.  The Black surname was being used for new-born babies in 1759 and Black remained the name.


Canada.   A number of Blacks came to the Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick mainly) and to Quebec in the late 1700’s.  These Blacks were from Scotland and mostly from the Aberdeen area.   Their numbers included:

  • William Black who came with his family to Nova Scotia in 1775, before moving soon afterwards to New Brunswick.  His son William was a prominent Methodist preacher; while a line of later Blacks – from Samuel to Joseph and to Frank – were all successful merchants and businessmen in Sackville, New Brunswick.
  • Johm Black who came to New Brunswick in 1785, followed by his brother William and two cousins.  By 1798 they had started a shipping and timber export business which, within a few years, became one of the largest business enterprises in the Maritime Provinces.
  • and another John Black who came to Quebec City in 1786 and started a shipbuilding enterprise there.  He was successful for a while, but after a string of failed investments returned in later life to Scotland.

Then there were Blacks connected with the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Samuel Black was a fur trader and Chief Factor for the company in the Columbia district (now British Columbia) in 1824.  George Black worked with the company in more mundane activities in Halifax, Nova Scotia before moving with his family to Winnipeg in 1882.  He had the more noteworthy descendants.

After a while these Blacks were able to establish themselves in Winnipeg society.

“A social highlight took place in October 1924 when Margaret Black was one of the four debutantes that were presented to the thirty-year-old Prince of Wales.  The following afternoon her father George Black was included in a golf foursome with the Prince.”

George owned breweries in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the 1920’s and his son George Jr. advanced to head up Toronto-based Canadian Breweries in the 1950’s.  And his son Conrad Black developed an even larger empire globally in newspapers, that is, before his fall from grace in 2004.

 


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Blacks of the Lamont Clan.  Those bearing the surname of Black in Scotland have often been seen as part of the Lamont clans of southern Argyll. This relates, not so much to evidence of any change of name from Lamont to Black, but to the traditional connection to the clan Lamont of a family called MacGiolla Dhuibh or “son of the black lad,” which was anglicized as Black.

The name has occurred in various parts of the western and southern Highlands of Scotland in several anglicized forms and its bearers believed themselves to be Lamonts, although not always living under their influence.

Writing of the family in Perthshire in 1661 Sir James Lamont in
his Declaration of the True Extraction of the MacIldowies alias Lamont said that “all the Macilldowies are my true native kindly people and kinsmen.”  In Argyll the name has been much shortened to the form Huie and this has also been anglicized as Black.   Both the Huie and Black names have been fairly common names in Campbelltown, Argyll.

There was a letter dated 1723 written to the Laird of Lamont by a John Black from Belfast in Ulster which went as follows:

“I being descended from the ancient name of Black, from Scotland for some ages, but my father and many relations removed by death, and to other countries,  God is pleased yet to continue me a survivor, although very infirm and about
seventy-six years of age. I have been an inhabitant of this place for about 60 years, except some intervals when I went abroad to France, Holland, and the West Indies all which time I have been exercised in merchandising. The original the Black had in the honorable family of the ancient family of Lamont and likewise your coat-of-arms. From this we can learn that the Blacks were merchants, traveled abroad a lot, were probably very wealthy and had the name of Lamont changed to Black.”

Black Fishermen in Campbelltown.  The emergence of Blacks in the fishing community in Campbelltown, Argyll can be traced to Daniel Black who arrived there from county Antrim in Ulster in the early 1850’s.  His younger brother Duncan followed him there, became a seaman, but later drowned.

Daniel’s first skiff of which there is a record was the Maggie in 1869,  He and his wife Margaret raised five sons – Archibald, Duncan, Daniel, John, and James – all of whom grew up to be fishermen.

Mary Black and Rathlin Island.  Mary Black the Irish folk singer has her roots in Rathlin, the remote island off the northernmost tip of county Antrim.  Her grandmother was still living there when she was growing up in a poor working class area of Dublin.  She remarked:

“I even believed that we belonged to the privileged class as we went to visit our grandmother’s farm every summer knowing that most kids in Dublin had never seen a cow.”

Her father Kevin had left the island in the late 1940’s in search of work.  He was a plasterer by trade.  In his spare time he would play the fiddle while his wife sang at local dance halls in Dublin. This was where Mary and her younger sister Frances, who also achieved success as a singer, got their musical upbringing.

About Rathlin Frances recalled:

“We’d be up very early to get the train to Belfast and then it was several bus journeys to Ballycastle.  From there you could see the island.  The final part of the journey was a very
treacherous boat trip.

The farmhouse was at the upper end of the island.  So my aunt would pick us up in her car.  At the farm there were cows, sheep and chickens everywhere. I’d get up early each morning to help milk the cows and then I’d spend the day exploring the island.

The house is still in the family.  I go there three or four times a year.  It’s my spiritual home, a haven and retreat.  There are now only about eighty people left on the island.” 

Daniel Black in Massachusetts.  Daniel Black appears to have first come to Boxford in Essex county,
Massachusetts as a servant in 1659.  A year later he was charged with courting his future wife Faith Bridges against her father’s wishes.   They latter married, again without her father’s permission, but they did not live easily together.   In 1664, they were both sentenced to sit in the stocks, he for abusing her and she “for gadding abroad.”

Daniel Black was later recorded as a poor laborer who cut wood and did piecework for the local ironworks.

The Rev. Sam Black and His Trouble with Yankee Soldiers.  Sam Black was born and grew up in Rupert, Greenbrier county in West Virginia.  He kept a farm along the Meadow river there.  But he was for most of his life a well-known Methodist circuit rider across vast spaces of Appalachia.

During the Civil War the Yankees had little liking for the Rev. Sam Black.  The Methodist minister was a strong Southern sympathizer. For most of the war years he constantly kept his faithful horse saddled and hitched at the gate in order to make a quick get-away when the Union soldiers came.

On one occasion, his daughter recalled, the Yankees caught up with him, yet he made his escape on horseback up the hollow above his home.  The Yankees gave chase but lost their prey when the minister circled back quickly on top of a knoll overlooking the home.  There he sat and watched the Yankee soldiers ransack the house.  He often related afterwards that “my horse showed good sense on that occasion.”  Had the animal neighed he would have been trapped.

But things did not fare so well down at the Black farm house. Mrs. Black saw the Union soldiers coming and quickly hid the maple sugar in the fireplace. She pretended to be making a fire when the soldiers entered her home.  While they were there the embers in the grate ignited the sugar and the whole supply was burned.  Meanwhile the family had hidden all their canned fruit in a board-and-sod covered trench in the yard.  One of the soldiers accidentally stepped on the trench, a board tilted and the family larder was uncovered and confiscated.

The old log house which the Rev. Black built as a young man burnt down in 1908.

Swartz and Schwartz.  The “s” sound shifted to “sh” in southern High German areas and by the end of the 19th century the spelling had been fixed as Schwartz in High German transcription.  However, families migrating to America before this time were more likely to use the older Swartz spelling.  A later variant Swarts sometimes appeared. These surnames would often give way to Black in 18th century America.

William Black – from Scotland to Canada.  William Black was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1727.  His father apparently had some sort of independent income as William kept a
pack of hounds in his youth and employed himself in the chase. At
21 he began working as a travelling salesman and he met his future wife Elizabeth Stocks in Yorkshire.  They took up residence in Huddersfield where he worked in the linen and woolen drapery business.

But William had itchy feet.  In early 1774 he set sail for Nova Scotia in Canada with the intent of seeing the country before making any commitment to emigrate. However, it seemed that, once there, he quickly made up his mind.   After arriving at Halifax, he proceeded to Amherst in Cumberland county where he purchased an estate. Then, after returning to England, he brought his wife Elizabeth, four sons, and a daughter to Nova Scotia the next year.  Sadly, Elizabeth died within a year of their arrival.

William married another Elizabeth that year and purchased a larger estate in Dorchester, New Brunswick. He had six children by his first wife and six by his second.  He survived his second wife too, by several years.

At the age of 88 he rode on horseback from Dorchester to Amherst, a distance of thirty miles, to visit his sons living there.  He was a remarkably well proportioned man and retained an erect and dignified bearing to old age.  He died in the year 1820 at the advanced age of 93 years.

 


Select Black Names   

Joseph Black who practiced in Edinburgh in the mid-18th century is considered the founder of modern quantitative chemistry.
Hugo Black
 is widely regarded as one of the most influential US Supreme Court justices in the 20th century.  He served from 1937 to 1971.
George Fraser Black
, a director of the New York Public Library, is known for his authoritative Surnames of Scotland, published in 1946.
Conrad Black
, Canadian born, was a powerful newspaper tycoon in Britain, Canada, America and Israel. However, he fell from power when he was convicted on charges of fraud and obstruction of justice in 2004.
Mary Black
 is a well-known Irish folk singer.


Select Black Numbers Today

  • 40,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 56,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 38,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

 

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