First Union: The Melungeons Revisited
BY JOAN VANNORSDALL SCHROEDER
"published in Blue
Ridge Country magazine in 1991."
printed here by permission
Brent Kennedy. His 1992 Blue Ridge Country article and 1994 book "The Resurrection of a Proud People" opened the door for Melungeon knowledge. In 1991, writer Joan Vannorsdall Schroeder spent time in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee investigating the Melungeons, a group of people who'd been an enigma in Appalachian history for centuries. Back then -- in our July/August '91 issue -- she found more questions than answers, with guesswork about the best that was available regarding the origins and identity of the Melungeon people.
Six years later, a dozen Internet Web sites are flooded with historical, genetic, linguistic and genealogical information about the Melungeons. Schroeder returned to southwest Virginia in late July for the Melungeon First Union with the same question in hand: Just who are the Melungeons?. In the early stages of planning the first-ever reunion of people of Melungeon descent early this year, organizers expected 50 attendees at the picnic grounds of Clinch Valley College in Wise, Va. It would, they thought, be a time for informal sharing and down-home food: nothing big, nothing scholarly, nothing a few dedicated Melungeon List volunteers couldn't handle.
By the time the weekend of July 25-27 rolled around, nearly 500 people had paid their $10 registration fee. Conference attendees spilled from the dormitories of Clinch Valley College and flooded motels in Norton, Pound and Big Stone Gap. The picnic had turned into a three-day conference, with its own poster and T-shirt logo, standing-room-only banquet, shuttle buses, a press conference and photo-ops, televised lectures and venders.
In no small way, the story of First Union echoes that of the Melungeon people: It is the story of people finally finding a voice in a culture hell-bent on not hearing it.Melungeon life.
Mattie Ruth Johnson (left) with family in the 1950s.
The adjective most often attached to them is mysterious. The mysterious Melungeons, with their dark, Mediterranean skin setting off startling blue eyes; fine, European features; their high cheekbones and straight, black hair. The French found them in 1690 in the western Carolina mountains, puzzling at their claim to be "Portyghee." And the Scotch-Irish settlers who moved down the Shenandoah Valley in the 1750s found them in the far reaches of southwestern Virginia and northeast Tennessee, pushing them farther into the Appalachians of northeast Tennessee and northwest North Carolina and laying claim to the fertile Melungeon valley land.
The Melungeons -- clearly not Anglo, or Indian, or Negro -- were labeled in early 19th-century censuses as "free persons of color" or "mulatto," thereby denied the right to vote, attend school or own property. Mysterious became a lifestyle: In an effort to avoid racial discrimination, they stayed to themselves, taking on English and Scotch-Irish surnames like Collins and Kennedy, Campbell and Adams.
In central Appalachia, to call someone a Melungeon was an insult; no wonder it was a term the Melungeons themselves avoided like the plague.
But consider this: When you lose your name, you lose your history.
That history is what Brent Kennedy set out to reclaim in the late 1980s. The Atlanta marketing consultant had come down with erythema nodosum sarcoidosis, a disease marked by blurred vision, painful breathing, exhaustion, aching joints and muscles, and skin rashes. Driven to know more about the disease, Kennedy discovered that it was most common among African Americans, people of Mediterranean descent, and New England's Portuguese immigrants. Why, he wondered, did he, Scotch-Irish to the bone, have a Mediterranean disease?"Big Haley."
Mahala Collins Mullins is the great aunt of researcher Mattie Ruth Johnson.
Kennedy was lucky. After six months, his disease went into remission.
"I thought I was dead, and I lived," he says. "So my perspective on life changed. I had a lot of questions that needed answering, and I set out to answer them."
Questions such as why his brother looked like Saddam Hussein. Why his mother's family was called the Black Nashes. Why his ancestors on both sides moved around so frequently in the high regions of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, surrendering land without compensation. Why, as a girl, his mother wasn't allowed to play in the sun without full cover to keep her skin from turning even darker. And most of all, why his family refused to answer any of these questions.
The result of his inquiry was a book -- "The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People" -- published in 1994 by Mercer Press, with a second edition released in 1996.
"I wrote the book to bite and sting," Kennedy says. "Many people disagree with me, and that's OK. That's the nature of academic debate."
Kennedy's book, subtitled "An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America," has clearly accomplished its purpose, sending spreading ripples into the community of American historians like a rock tossed into a still pond. In it, he asserts that the Anglo version of America's earliest settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth is reductive, obscuring the original melting-pot nature of the American people, dating back 1,200 years to the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The Melungeons of central Appalachia -- his people -- are the prototypic "melange," or mixture, possessing Spanish, Portuguese, North African, Turkish, Semitic, Native-American, African-American, and, yes, northern European blood.Mattie Ruth Johnson.
Her "My Melungeon Heritage" book explores the area near Sneedville, Tenn.
Look around the banquet room of the Norton, Va. Holiday Inn, and it's hard to doubt Brent Kennedy's assertion. Lots of Mediterranean skin tones, high cheekbones, black hair, blue eyes. But also Native Americans and African Americans, some Jewish profiles in evidence, also. There are several heads bearing fezzes, a couple bedecked with Indian feathers. With a few exceptions (i.e., the media folks), all of them claim Melungeon heritage.
The head banquet table is equally eclectic. There is Dr. Will Goins, a Lumbee Indian, who gives an Indian prayer to connect the gathering to the earth. The mayor of Wise, Caynor Smith, who tells the 400-plus attendees of his trip to Cesme, Turkey to discover his Melungeon roots. And the mayor of Cesme, whose translated remarks are eloquent: "Five hundred years ago, your ancestors left the Turkish homeland. Now their souls are happy and comfortable -- we have waited all those years to combine our hearts."
But it is keynote speaker Brent Kennedy who sets the tone for the evening. "There's something important happening here. We have a movement -- God only knows where it'll end up. Years from now, you'll tell your children and grandchildren you were here. Maybe this is our Woodstock!"
In his keynote speech, Kennedy tells the story of his illness, the resulting research, and the academic community's refusal to acknowledge the evidence he'd gathered.
"I sent out articles and got some pretty nasty rejection letters in return," he said. "My theory -- that Melungeons were of Iberian, Turkish and other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origins -- wasn't particularly well-received," he says wryly.
(Kennedy's theory challenged the most commonly accepted theory of Melungeon origin: that they were Appalachian "tri-racial isolates," a mixture of "poor" whites, African slaves and "renegade" Native Americans -- the definition, in fact, attached to Melungeon in Webster's Third New International Dictionary as recently as 15 years ago.)
Kennedy credits Blue Ridge Country with giving him the benefit of the doubt, publishing his article in the July/August 1992 issue of the magazine. The response was overwhelming. He received hundreds of letters and phone calls, sharing stories and asking for more information. Kennedy moved back to his hometown of Wise, taking an administrative position at Clinch Valley College, accepting speaking engagements across the country. Now, he's known fondly as the Melungeon Poster Boy.
During his speech, Kennedy brings people to the front of the room to illustrate various Melungeon physical traits. Semitic noses. Central Asian cranial ridges. Shovel teeth. Asian eyefolds. All, he claims, genetic markers to support his theory that Melungeons are of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean origins.
He holds up his hands and reveals a faint scar on each hand. "You ever hear the story about the six-fingered Melungeons? Well, I'm living proof it's true." He had his extra digits, which are common among those of Spanish and Jewish heritage, removed as a young boy.
"Genes don't lie," he says.Ivagene Johnson.
She's in front of the family's dairy, circa 1930.
In addition to the phenotypic evidence, Kennedy and others have compiled a long list of linguistic similarities between Appalachian and Turkish dialects to prove their assertion of Mediterranean presence in Appalachia.
"I hope other researchers continue the work I've started," he says. "Geneticists and linguists and historians, anthropologists, archeologists: It'll take all of these disciplines to fill in the gaps in the Melungeon story."
Kennedy finishes his speech with some provocative statements. "Why are we doing this? Why are we all here? We're not seeking justice for lost lands -- it's too late for restitution. We surrendered our claims to our land when we assimilated with the larger white culture. It's almost impossible to separate the perpetrators from the victims now.
"The central importance of the story of the Melungeons is that we are all related -- all brothers and sisters. Racism has no place in our world. We may never be able to determine how the Melungeons came to be, or just exactly what racial types we're made up of.
"And if we find that in fact there were no cultural and genetic relation to the Turks, Spanish, etc.? Well, so what? Look at the good that's come out of the inquiry. Let's all pretend we're related and see what happens!"
Is Kennedy's globalism a feel-good cop-out? Has he so expanded the possible genetic origins of the Melungeons that the term is useless? Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, historian Virginia DeMarce thinks so. In a review of Kennedy's book, she asserts that Kennedy seems to feel that "any ancestry is preferable to Northern European."
Cindy Goins Young of Martinsville, Va. has Melungeon blood on both sides of her family. She believes that much of the recent research on the Melungeon people is "speculation."
" 'Melungeon' is just a term," she says. "It's a culture, not a race. And how do you 'prove' a culture?"
What First Union offers Young is a chance to make sense of myriad small things in her childhood, habits such as burying food, which she remembers clearly. "I discovered that other Melungeon families did that, too. Why? Maybe by coming together we can all figure it out."
The Melungeons: a culture or a race? Or both? One thing everyone at First Union seems to agree on is that, despite all the research, there are still a lot more questions than answers.Mattie Ruth Johnson.
As a girl, she attended Prospect School.
James and Phyllis Morefield have come to First Union from Edinburg, Va. to answer some questions particular to their own family. Phyllis Morefield shares that since the mid-1980s they'd heard stories from her husband's family about "Portuguese" blood, stories about the Lost Colony.
"But you hear those things, and you forget about them."
Last November, they saw the special issue of Appalachian Quarterly on Melungeon heritage. "I didn't even know how to pronounce the word," Phyllis says. "But from what I read, I began to realize that some of the 'missing branches' in my husband's family tree might be Melungeons."
Jo Lockhart-Sams of Louisville, Ky. tells a similar story. The avocational historian came with her uncle to investigate why her family members described themselves as Black Dutch, why her great-aunt May said, laconically, "We came from the Sioux." Why six generations back her father's family surname was Duck, which suddenly changed to Hall. "Several other relatives took to calling themselves 'John Adams,' " she says, smiling. About as American-generic as you can get.
It was like the chorus of a song: over and over, First Union attendees talked about the long code of silence in their families, the warnings from elders not to ask too many questions, the shame of their dark-skinned mystery. Connie Clark, a Wise, Va. high school English teacher of Melungeon ancestry, offers a poignant anecdote.
"My mother told the story about scrubbing the back of her neck, trying to make it white. One day her father saw her, and told her to quit. 'Honey,' he said, 'I've been trying to scrub it off my whole life.' "
The First Union sessions offered Saturday range from the scholarly to the entertaining. First up is historian Eloy Gallegos, whose overview of Melungeon origins closely parallels that of Brent Kennedy. Gallegos cites 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese colonization in Georgia and the Carolinas, the most clearly documented being Santa Elena, near present-day Beaufort, S.C.
According to Gallegos, Captain Juan Pardo and 200 soldiers from the mountains of northern Spain and Portugal established a series of four or five forts in northern Georgia, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee, providing the Spanish with a base for their colonization efforts. Pardo then returned to Spain and brought back women and children to Santa Elena. Some of these settlers migrated inland and intermarried with Native Americans. The rest, as they say, is Melungeon history.
Gallegos shows maps of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, covered with Spanish names: Louisa, Amelia, Buena Vista, Alta Vista, Augusta, Francisco, Pueblo, Lisbon, Galatia, Gaston, and Valhalla. More proof for the evidence of Spanish presence in Appalachia.
"Abe Lincoln had Melungeon heritage through Nancy Hanks' bloodlines," Gallegos asserts, suggesting that some feel his mixed-race origins may in part account for his dislike of slavery. Other Melungeon researchers believe Elvis Presley and Ava Gardner share Melungeon genes.