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Thoughts - Inititials versus given name

Initials may stand for more than a person's given name
By Gerald Ensley

As another Black History Month ends, take a moment to appreciate one sign of progress: Black preachers don't have to go by their initials anymore.

For years, it has been one of those curiosities to me: Why do so many black Southern preachers use their initials instead of first names? M.L. King Jr. may be the most famous example. But Tallahassee was a hotbed of initials: C.K. Steele, R.N. Gooden, A.J. Richardson, R.B. Holmes.

I couldn't decide whether it was a black thing, a Southern thing (because the practice extended to whites as well) or just an attempt to beef up otherwise quiet names such as Charles Kenzie Steele - though how can you beat Raleigh Noble Gooden for sizzle?

Then I asked a pair of good historians and found out the answer: all of the above.

Larry Rivers is the Florida A&M dean of arts and sciences recently hired as president of Fort Valley State College. Rivers, author of the seminal book "Slavery In Florida: Territorial Days to Emancipation," said the use of initials instead of names was prevalent among black preachers from the end of slavery through the Jim Crow era.

Rivers said it was an attempt to circumvent one of the insensitive, paternalistic habits of segregation: White people used to call black people by their first names - if not demeaning nicknames - no matter their age or their status in the community.

By using only their initials, black preachers increased the odds that whites would address them in a more dignified manner. Rivers said the practice became embraced by doctors, lawyers, college professors and all sorts of black professionals.

Instead of being called "Willie" or "Jimmy," blacks with initials were more likely to be addressed as Rev. Johnson, Dr. Smith or, at the very least, Mr. Jones.

"If you didn't know their first name, you had to address them by their last name. And once you did that, it was easy enough to add the title," Rivers said. "It was a way to command respect from the white community."

Rivers said the practice is fading as society makes racial progress - even among longtime users of initials. Tallahassee's A.J. Richardson, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church, now goes by Adam J. Richardson.

"Starting with the changes in the 1960s and civil-rights movement, more and more people are realizing they should treat all people with respect," Rivers said. "Many in the black community now don't think it's necessary to use their initials because they get the respect they're due."

Of course, it's also true that most of the black preachers who used initials were in the South - where the use of initials for names also has a long history among whites. Every Tallahassee City Commission from 1920 to 1960 included at least one initialed member. In 1950, the commission consisted of five white men: W.T. Mayo, H.G. Easterwood, B.A. Ragsdale, W.H. Cates and - apparently an outlaw - Robert C. Parker.

William Rogers, retired Florida State history professor and prolific author, said he didn't know of anyone who'd done a study about the use of initials instead of first names. But he's convinced it was mainly a Southern custom of bygone days - among both whites and blacks.

He said many Southerners chose to use initials instead of given names they found "awkward or too fancy." Perhaps one-time Louisiana State quarterback Yelberton Abraham Tittle springs to mind.

Moreover, Rogers said, black and white Southerners had a history of giving their children only initials instead of full names. In some cases, they liked the catchy sound. Sometimes, Rogers said half-jokingly, large Southern families ran out of names by the time they got to the 10th or 11th child. Often, he said, it was a tribute to someone notable, such as the doctor who delivered the child or a local sports hero (Y.A. Tittle again?) - or even a minister - with just initials for his name.

"I think (Rivers') point is valid: In the South, you can never get away from race," Rogers said. "But I think it's a Southern cultural thing that cuts across racial lines."

Tallahassee's most famous initials at the moment belong to the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., the black pastor of Bethel Baptist Church and a Florida A&M trustee. Holmes' name on his birth certificate is simply R.B. His father's name was R.B. They were both named for a long-ago relative who was a prominent black landowner during Reconstruction.

"I don't know why he was called R.B.," Holmes said. "I wish it stood for Rich Baby. That would be good."

Yet Patrick Mason, director of FSU's African-American Studies program, suggests it doesn't matter what black preachers use for a first name. After all, Southerners also prize politeness.

"You would never address a black preacher by his first name," Mason said. "His first name is always Reverend." n

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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