February is Black History Month a time when we honor the accomplishments of talented individuals who charted new paths and changed the course of history. These individuals in word or deed helped transform the world they were born into and challenged perceived norms to stake their claim to this world. For many new parents, turning to historical, inspiring figures for baby names is an attractive enterprise. Choosing a name based on a person’s life’s work offers an opportunity to educate themselves and their child later in life.
For Black History Month, we wanted to spotlight some of the most influential Americans who helped us understand our world better, expressed their passion through art, taught us how to persevere through sport, and legislated for a more equitable country. We turn to the arts, sports, science, and more fields to inspire baby names for boys that encourage thoughtful leadership and honor a storied heritage. Check out these 25 baby names for boys inspired by Black excellence that celebrate the legacies of those who changed the world.
The great Black Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes put this name on the map! Actor Laurence Fishburne adopted it for his now-grown son, born in 1987. Despite these popular associations, the name didn’t make it into the US top 1000 until 2013. Hughes was born James Mercer Langston Hughes, Langston being his mother’s maiden name. Langston is an English name that is curiously rare in the UK that means “tall man’s town.”
One “bald” name we can get behind, thanks to pioneering Black author James Baldwin who fearlessly argued about the effects of inequality and highlighted the Black experience of those striving in America. Baldwin is a name with German origins that mean “brave friend.” James Baldwin had a fitting name, indeed.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson produced some of America’s most iconic, contemporary plays. His accomplishments include Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences which are so cherished that both have been adapted into popular films today. The name of the month August comes from a Roman emperor of the same name, Augustus. This Latin name means “magnificent” and we can easily say the same for August Wilson’s body of work.
Author Colson Whitehead introduced this surname-name to the lexicon, perfect for, well, a son or grandson of a Nicholas as this English name means “son of Nicholas.” Another Pulitzer Prize-winner, Whitehead has written a number of groundbreaking novels including his debut work The Intuitionist which was followed by The Underground Railroad and later The Nickel Boys. Colson has become a popular given name in the US in recent years and is now a top 500 baby name.
Sure, you could choose the English form of this compound name, John-Micheal but why not honor one of the art world’s most prolific painters Jean-Michel Basquait? Basquait’s work tackled such nuanced issues as inequality, segregation, and sexuality. The name Jean-Michel is a French name that signals the artist’s Haitian heritage. Jean has Hebrew origins that mean “God is gracious” which is also true for Michel which means “who is like God?”
Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier blazed a trail on the silver screen becoming one of the country’s first established leading, Black men. We absolutely love his name, Sidney, a French name that refers to “Saint-Denis.” Sidney was one of America’s most popular names until about sixty years ago when its popularity started to decline. It fell off of the US top 1000 in 2013 and we would love for new parents to honor a great and bring fresh appeal to this glorious name,
“Purple Rain” creator, Prince cemented his reputation as an icon of music starting in the early seventies. The artist could play a number of instruments and exhibited skills of a classic virtuoso. We, personally, find endless inspiration in the musician’s career and legendary sound. Prince is a name that comes from Latin and means “chief.” The name rocketed up the popular charts following the death of Prince and is now more popular than ever before.
Percy Lavon Julian was an American research chemist and a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. He laid the foundation for the use of steroids in modern medicine. In recent decades, the name Percy has not been favored by parents as it has gained a reputation as a moniker for spoiled rich boys. However, this royal name has a storied history with origins in French tradition referring to the place Perci-en-Auge which translates to “one who pierces the valley.”
Benjamin Banneker was a free Black almanac author, surveyor, landowner, and farmer who had knowledge of mathematics and natural history. Born in Baltimore County in 1731, this author and scholar was self-taught and helped established the District of Columbia in Washington as we know it today. Benjamin has been a top 10 name for boys for decades and has historically been one of the English-speaking world’s most beloved Hebrew names. It means “son of the right hand.”
There are over five hundred names for the Arab prophet who founded the Muslim religion, making it the most common boys’ name in the world and explaining the Muslim adage, “If you have a hundred sons, name them all Muhammad.” This Arabic name means “praiseworthy” which holds true for athlete and activist Muhammad Ali as a trailblazing figure of American history.
Ray Charles Robinson was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, and composer. Among friends and fellow musicians he preferred being called “Brother Ray” but the public new him as “The Genius.” Known for classic hits like “Unchained Melody,” “Hit the Road Jack,” and “Georgia on my Mind” Charles cemented his legacy as one of America’s most prominent songwriters. The name Ray comes from German tradition and means “wise protector.”
Jordan has established itself as a top 100 name in the US and one of new parents’ most beloved unisex options. Michael Jordan is one of America’s greatest athletes who became a cultural touchstone in the 1990s because of his transcendent basketball skills. While Michael is a great name, you might get more pleasure from Jordan, a Hebrew name that refers to the river and means “flowing down.”
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s name probably originated as “Thoroughgood,” a Puritan virtue name that is rare today and was at the time of his birth in 1908. Marshall (also a great option!) became the first Black Supreme Court Justice after being nominated by Lyndon B Johnson who was impressed with the attorney’s illustrious legal career which centered on fights for Civil Rights. We would love to hear more of this traditional name that would sound fresh today.
While you could go with Bayard, we love Bayard Rustin’s surname even more. Rustin was instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement and fought against racial discrimination for equality. He was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement even though he has not historically been taught about in schools because he was openly gay. It’s a shame that someone who had such an outsized role organizing the March on Washington, Freedom Riders, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has not garnered the attention he deserves.
Rustin is the French preferred form of the name Russell which means “red-headed.” This name made the US top 1000 in 1979 and 1980 but has since fallen from favor. Honor a legend and help bring back this gorgeous name by choosing Rustin for your baby boy.
Stevland Hardaway Morris is known professionally as Stevie Wonder. The musician reshaped conventions of R&B and is one of the most popular and influential artists in the world. A member of just about every Hall of Fame of music that exists, Wonder produced some of the most cherished songs ever including “Superstition,” “Ebony and Ivory,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” and many, many more! Stevie is a form of Stephen that has not been popular since the seventies in the US. Stephen has Greek origins that mean “crown.”
Eldrick Tont “Tiger” Woods is an American professional golfer. He is tied for first in PGA Tour wins and ranks second in men’s major championships and also holds numerous golf world records. Woods is widely regarded as one of the greatest golfers, and one of the most famous athletes of all time. While the name Eldrick is wonderful, we love the name Tiger as it brings a touch of nature to a moniker. While this name has never been in the top 1000 formally given ones, it is a common nickname and adventurous parents would be wise to adopt it.
While a fairly contemporary reference for Black History Month, Barry Jenkins has proven himself an auteur of the Black experience and has given the world such films as Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Medicine for Melancholy. Only active in the film industry since the 2000s, this filmmaker has staked a claim as one of the best. Barry is a name with Irish origins that mean “spear.” Barry has fallen out of favor but we who hope fortunes change for this friendly appellation and Barack Obama’s childhood nickname.
James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was an American track and field athlete and four-time gold medalist in the 1936 Olympic Games. Owens specialized in the sprints and the long jump and was recognized in his lifetime as the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history. While each one of his names is appealing we have always had a soft spot for the gender-neutral Jesse, a Hebrew name meaning “gift.”
We would be mistaken not to mention one of the world’s greatest leaders of all time who reshaped it as we know it. Martin Luther King Jr. was the face of the Civil Rights Movement. A minister and activist who was steadfast in his resolve, King remains a source of endless inspiration and a role model for all of us who wish to dream of a better world. Luther is a name with German origins that mean “army people.” The name has fallen from use as a given name and we would love to see that change as it is a handsome one that honors one of the most influential people who ever walked this earth.
George Washington Carver was an American agricultural scientist and inventor who promoted alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion. He was the most prominent black scientist of the early 20th century. Curiously, he found a number of uses for the peanuts! Known in his time as “Black Leonardo” for all of his inventions, this exceptional man would make for a great namesake. Carver is an English occupational name that means “woodcarver.” As a given name this one is rather rare which should appeal to parents who want variety.
James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix was an American musician, singer, and songwriter. Although his mainstream career spanned only four years, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music, and one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. Jimi is a nickname-name that is instantly recognizable and synonymous with the icon of music. Jimi is a shortened form of James or an alternate form of Jim. This name is an English invention from the Hebrew name that brings us Jacob which means “supplanter.”
Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, speaker, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, becoming famous for his oratory and sharp antislavery writings. Frederick has been a top 500 name in the US since records began in 1880. The name has German origins and means “peaceful ruler.”
Edward Alexander Bouchet was an American physicist and educator and was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from an American university, completing his dissertation in physics at Yale in 1876. In 2005, Yale and Howard University founded the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society in his name. Edward is a very popular, classic English name that means “wealthy guardian.”
Hero John Robert Lewis was an American politician, statesman, and civil rights activist and leader who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020. A source of endless inspiration for his grit and determination, Lewis always fought for justice and encouraged us all to engage in “good trouble.” Lewis is the English variation of the French name Louis which means “renowned warrior.”
Barack Hussein Obama II is an American politician and attorney who served as the 44th president of the United States from 2009 to 2017. A member of the Democratic Party, Obama was the first African-American president of the United States. With a unique personal history, this figure showed that unconventionality can be a recipe for success. You will find the name Barack in a number of naming traditions that include Arabic, Swahili, and Hebrew. Thus, the name can mean “blessing,” “lightning,” and “thunderbolt.”
There you go! We hope these inspiring figures with their excellent names will help you in your decision in choosing a name for your boy. Turning to figures who shaped American history and changed the world is one way to celebrate a baby boy born in February, the month we celebrate Black History and Black Excellence.
Andrew is a Chicago-based writer who enjoys finding the best of the internet, obsessively making lists, and cooking for friends. After studying Film and Art History, he developed a deep love for both topics. Celebrity news, pop culture, and stories that bring people together are his passions.
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