There is a time in every person’s life when they begin to search for themselves. Breaking down your name is a great place to start.
Your first name is like the gateway to your future. It’s how you build atop the foundation of the legacy your family created for you.
Understanding your first name means diving into your wants and needs and desires as a person, then shaping whom you want the world to see.
But your last name is the most interesting. It’s like a gateway to your past and history is filled with intriguing stories. It’s connected to why you are who you are at this very moment. The last name can tell you a lot about your heritage and history unless you’re a Black American because frankly many of us don’t know how we got them.
My name is Bilal Morris and I am a Black American. I wouldn’t change my name for the world.
If I had time in this article to tell you the fascinating tale of Bilal, the man I was named after, this would turn into a book. So for time’s sake, this piece will delve into my last name, the one I know very little about.
Finding answers is like connecting dots. Since I am a Black American and Morris was likely a name given to my ancestors, I began my dot connecting there.
From family stories and a little bit of information I could get out of the generation before me, I came to realize my family lineage could be traced back to the Maryland eastern shore. A place that birthed Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, two of the most important Black figures in American history. The Maryland eastern shore was also known for its communities of free Blacks before the Civil War. More free Blacks were living on the eastern shores of Maryland than in any other slave-holding area in the country.
According to the Washington Post, free Blacks roamed Talbot County as early as 1788, more than 70 years before the start of the Civil War. They eventually built two churches and purchased property to form a pseudo-town called The Hill Community in Easton. By 1800, in the neighboring county of Dorchester, more than a third of its Black population was free. This was partly due to the region’s Quakers, who had customs of freeing their slaves after a certain age.
I had connected my first dot. If my family had once called the Maryland eastern shore their home, they could have been free people. But I needed more dots to connect.
The surname Morris isn’t a dutch name, it’s closer to English, Irish, Scottish, Or Welsh. So I looked for families in the Maryland/Virginia area with the last name Morris, who owned big plantations of slaves during early America, and what I found blew my mind. I came across an article by professor and historian Victoria E. Bynum about a case study she did in 1977 researching her friend’s family history.
She wrote about a Mulatto woman named Elizabeth Morris who was born between 1670 and 1690 in Gloucester County, VA. Elizabeth was an indentured servant to Thomas Morris or his two sons, James and Thomas Jr. The boys owned 670 acres of land in Middlesex County which they inherited from their father.
By 1724 Virginia set its sights on stripping rights from people of color. Free or in bondage, all persons of color were forbidden to hold unsupervised meetings and had to abide by a curfew or risk court-ordered physical punishment. As slavery became more popular among southern whites, rich and poor, free Black slaves struggled to cultivate their freedom.
For Elizabeth, this meant her children and grandchildren would have to maneuver through a world that was defined by slavery. None of Elizabeth’s children were slaves, but all of them worked through the cycle of servitude. Even though servants weren’t considered slaves, they were still forbidden by law to marry, which meant Elizabeth’s pregnancies violated the terms of her indenture contract, resulting in her children being born into servitude.
In the early 1700s, Elizabeth had two children, a boy named James Morris, and a girl named Winnefred. During each of her pregnancies, the Middlesex county court ordered its sheriff to administer 25 lashes to her bare back as punishment for having children out of wedlock
This terrible process continued as Elizabeth’s daughter Winnie gave birth to her own daughter at 15 named Biddy. She would also receive lashes for her pregnancy. By 1742, Winnie had given birth to three sons, Francis, George, and James. Winnie’s older brother had two children as well, Thomas, born in 1843, and William, born in 1845.
Three generations of free Blacks with the last name Morris, only 220 miles away from Maryland’s strong communities of free Blacks? This might have been a coincidence, but I saw it as another dot connected.
In 1860, when Thomas Morris was 17 years old he decided to run and never return to his master’s home. Thomas was sued by his master for “deserting service’ and was ordered to appear in court in December. Thomas did not show up, instead, he kept running. In January 1861 he was ordered to report for a second time but did not show. Thomas was nowhere to be found.
His case was eventually dropped and Tom Morris’s apprenticeship was “revoked and annulled,” due to the lurking Civil War which was destined to change the course of America forever.
Could Tom Morris have been able to find his way to Maryland and live among the free Blacks who resided there? Could he have been my great-great grandad? There is no real way to know for sure, but just the idea that my ancestors could have been fighting to stay free in a world that would have rather had them as slaves is incredible once you sit back and think about it.
My ancestors might not have been slaves.