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I Never Had a Name

My momma never told me I didn’t have a name. In fact she didn’t know. But I didn’t have a name until I was 66 years old. Young people be warned. The Social Security people will not give you a dime without a valid birth certificate.

Dr. McMillan delivered me at home on February 4, 1941. I’m sure he meant well, but he forgot to put my name on my birth certificate. He delivered thousands of babies over the decades, probably more than 25,000 Native American, white, and black babies. Most of us were born at home. We couldn’t afford a hospital. But if we had been born in a hospital, I would have had a name, I’m sure.

But Dr. McMillan didn’t deliver many white babies. Once he started delivering babies of color, the white people shunned him. He delivered babies until he was very old, as his father did before him. In addition to delivering babies and treating sick people, his father was a member of the North Carolina state legislature and the author of one of the most famous books on the Lost Colony.

The son was too busy to put my name on the birth certificate. Or momma and daddy hadn’t picked a name for me yet, one or the other. But it didn’t matter to most people. My elementary and high school, as well as Hercules Powder Co., the University of Richmond, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, U.S. Air Force, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Cal State Hayward, Bacone College, and several dozen other employers paid it no attention. The Federal Bureau of Investigation even gave me a top secret clearance for the Air Force.

But when I applied for my Social Security retirement money in 1966, they wouldn’t process my application. I had to give them a copy of my original birth certificate from the state of North Carolina. It was no good. The place where my name was supposed to be was blank. No name, no money.

But they told me what to do. I had to go to court and get a legal name change. It took 11 steps, and six months of my time, but I finally got it done. And then I started drawing Social Security retirement money. But if I had died in that six-month period, my beautiful wife Toni would not have gotten any money from it. And her life would have been much harder.

Among the things I had to do were:

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  • Contact the state of North Carolina Vital Records office to request a birth certificate.
  • Contact my elementary school and obtain my records to provide to the state of North Carolina.
  • Fill out an application for a birth certificate with my name on it.
  • File the application with Social Security, which disapproved it.
  • File papers in court to change my name from nothing to Dean Chavers.
  • Appear in court and swear under oath that what I was saying was true.
  • Go back to court when the form the judge used was the wrong one.
  • Re-do the form back at my office and bring it to the judge the next day for her to sign.

There were some other things as well. I forget what they were. And this list does not include the four to six trips I made to the Social Security office, where I had to take a number, sit and wait for an hour or so, and go up when I was called. It does not include the three or four times I had to sit with an official while he or she filled out forms.

So this is a warning to young people. Most of them just brush it off when I tell them, but I say it anyway. A year before you are eligible to get Social Security, take your birth certificate to them to make sure it is kosher. Since I went through my ordeal, I have met lots of people with potential problems with their birth certificates.

Some of them were born at home, delivered by midwives. That is a potential problem. Some of them didn’t get a birth certificate from the state, but from their parish church. Potential problem. Some never got a birth certificate. Big problem.

Someone has told the people at Social Security not to give out any money without proof that the person has earned it. And they do that. I doubt anyone could cheat the Social Security system. At least I wasn’t smart enough to.

There is a pleasant side to this story, though. I never liked the first name my mother gave me, so when I had to get the legal name change, I dropped it and just used my middle name. I had already done that for my driver’s license 35 years ago, and for my mortgage, and for bank records.

Young people, be sure not to let this slip. Have the Social Security people give you the green light on your birth certificate a year in advance.

Dean Chavers, Ph.D., is the director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program for American Indians located in Albuquerque. His address is His latest book is Racism in Indian Country, published by Peter Lang Publishers in 2009. His book before that was a two-volume work of 800 pages called Modern American Indian Leaders published by Mellen Press in 2007.