Friday, February 3, 2006

First Union: Melungeons Revisited Part II

  Darlene Wilson.
She's the creator of the Melungeon Web site.

University of Kentucky Ph.D. candidate and Wise native Darlene Wilson has a very different focus on the question of Melungeon identity. Known as the Web-Spinning Granny on the Melungeon Web site (and its creator), Wilson believes that the genetic makeup and chronology of Melungeon origins matters less than the resulting racism, which she believes is still rampant in Appalachia today.

Wilson and Appalachian State University anthropologist Patricia Beaver assert that being Melungeon became "downright dangerous" after the 1830s, when "the Nat Turner revolt led to more repressive measures against all free persons of color. As usual, the mountains provided sanctuary and a wealth of good hiding places for clans who needed more time to 'get white-enough.' "

Wilson calls for nothing less than "a radical re-interpretation of Appalachian history" that fully addresses the patriarchal discrimination leveled against mixed-race Appalachian cultures. Hers is a feminist telling of Melungeon heritage, focused on "the ubiquitous Cherokee granny": a call for full recognition of the role that nonwhite women played in Appalachian genealogy and history.

The brunt of Wilson's considerable anger falls on Dr. W.A. Plecker, Virginia's first registrar of vital statistics. In a series of letters written in the 1930s and '40s, Plecker left a trail of hate and racism, referring to the Melungeons as "these negroes" and "the problem."

According to Wilson, Plecker was in Germany in 1939 and consulted with Hitler's eugenicists in order to purify Appalachian culture. The result: "Them that could pass for white, did; them that couldn't, skeedaddled."

Connie Clark.
Her mother told of scrubbing her neck to try to make it white.

"Plecker left office in 1945. The following year he was hitand killed by a truck. I hope it was a six-fingered Melungeon driving that truck," Wilson says.

Mattie Ruth Johnson has yet another perspective on the Melungeon story. Johnson grew up on Newman's Ridge near Sneedville, Tenn., where the largest group of Melungeons settled. "A great many of them are my ancestors," she says proudly. The nurse and painter-writer -- related through both her mother and father to the colorful and large moonshining Melungeon, Mahala "Big Haley" Mullins -- is the author of the newly published book "My Melungeon Heritage: A Story of Life on Newman's Ridge."

"Writing this book brought back wonderful memories: I wrote a while and cried a while," she says. "My nieces and nephews, they don't understand why we swept the yard, or put a water bucket and dipper on the front porch for passersby. This is my gift to them, and to the wonderful Melungeons."

"Growing up, I felt a shyness about people. I did feel very separate. There was a differentness about us. But we were good and kind-hearted people who believed in giving good measure to everyone. The Bible was the Melungeon Word," Johnson says.

Johnson is eloquent when she talks about growing up on Newman's Ridge: "If you go up to the cemetery on a clear day, it's like looking out into infinity." People are stealing headstones from that cemetery now, she says, because they bear Melungeon names.

Her version of Melungeon heritage is wistful, personal and respectful, seen through the gauze of time. Culturally and individually, it means every bit as much as the work being done by professional historians and linguists, and at First Union, her books sells like hotcakes.

One vendor's table down from Johnson's, M. Mehmet Topcak is handing out complimentary pens proclaiming "We love all Melungeons!" The self-proclaimed Turkish ambassador of good will has come to America to accept a national sister-city award, cementing the bonds between Wise, Va. and his hometown of Cesme. "Take," he tells me, pushing stacks of postcards toward me. Colorful scenes of Turkey grace the front; on the back is printed an advertisement for upcoming tours of Turkey.

"Magical names like Cesme, Izmir, Bursa and Ephesus set the scene for a unique journey that's pure Turkish Delight all the way. A heady mixture of history, mythology, tradition, culture, fun and enjoyment in a unique Mediterranean style," the accompanying flyer boasts. There is the suggestion of a pilgrimage in the promotion, a sort of Melungeon Roots appeal, that may be a bit premature given the tentative nature of much of the burgeoning Melungeon research.

Part of the upcoming Melungeon documentary, produced and directed by William VanDerKloot of Atlanta, was filmed in Turkey. "The Melungeons: A Forgotten People," a not-for-profit project, will, according to Brent Kennedy, "explore the various theories and competing evidence in a sort of 'in search of' approach." It is scheduled to air in January 1998.

Sunday morning, after the car caravan bound for a tour of Newman's Ridge leaves the Clinch Valley College campus, a few members of the planning committee wander around the conference grounds picking up stray scraps of paper, taking down posters, coiling the cords of audiovisual equipment. Audie Kennedy, Darlene Wilson, Brent Kennedy and Mary Goodyear are clearly exhausted. At noon, they will reconvene to talk about what went right and what didn't, and to plan the 1998 conference.

"I feel positive and upbeat," says Wilson. "People came here to retouch their hearthland. They are the children and grandchildren of the Appalachian Diasporas. For many, it's the first time they've returned. This conference made that possible for them."

Brent Kennedy is on his way to the cemetery to meet more television cameras. Despite his ever-present smile, it's clear it's been a long weekend. "I see myself as the lightning rod -- there's not a single day in my life I'm not dealing with this. Some days, I'd just as soon go fishing.

"I look forward to the day I don't have to go talk to civic and school groups about Melungeons, because it will have become common information for all of us."

Right now, that information is flooding the Internet at an astonishing rate. Some of it is contradictory, much of it conjectural, some seems far-fetched.

The Melungeons, who claim possible genetic ties to Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Libya, Morocco, Greece, Syria, Iraq and Iran, as well as to numerous Native American tribes, African Americans and Northern Europeans extending back more than four centuries: Can they ever determine with certainty their racial identity? Will the adjective "mysterious" ever detach itself from the name of Melungeon? Admittedly, it seem a far stretch. But, then, six years ago a meeting like First Union was a far stretch.

Maybe the better place to look is at the place the Melungeons have held (and been denied) culturally in Appalachia -- perhaps to talk about a Melungeon culture makes more sense than talking about the Melungeon race. And maybe Brent Kennedy's challenge to the naysayers -- "Come forward and challenge the current theories -- we want conflict!" -- will prove all of us wrong.

Want to Know More?The following is a list of resources which may be useful to those wanting to know more about current Melungeon research and theories; it is by no means exhaustive:

1. Web site address.

2. The National Melungeon Registry. An enrollment archive intended to register Melungeon descendants and to serve as a clearing-house for Melungeon information and activities. Requires at least one "probable" Melungeon ancestor. Write to The National Melungeon Registry, The Wise County Historical Society, P.O. Box 368, Wise, VA 24293. Registration fee: $10, or $20 for registration plus a subscription to The Appalachian Quarterly.

3. Under One Sky: The Melungeon Information Exchange (formerly the Southeast Kentucky Melungeon Information Exchange). An occasional newsletter containing reviews, historical documents and genealogical information. Contact: Bill Fields, editor, Box 342, Alcoa, TN 37707.

4. Books.

* Ball, Bonnie. "The Melungeons," 8th ed. (Big Stone Gap, Va., privately printed. 1991).

* Bible, Jean Patterson. "Melungeons: Yesterday and Today" (Rogersville, Tenn.: East Tennessee Printing Company, 1975).

* Johnson, Mattie Ruth. "My Melungeon Heritage: A Story of Life on Newman's Ridge" (Johnson City, Tenn., Overmountain Press, 1997).

* Kennedy, N. Brent. "The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People" (Macon, Ga., Mercer University Press, 1994). Revised edition 1996.


American Words -- Or Are they Turkish?Following are a few of the many American words that bear striking similarities to Turkish/Ottoman words, along with definitions. Brent Kennedy and other Melungeon researchers suggest that these are examples of the clear linguistic clues linking Melungeon and Turkish heritage:

1. Allegheny -- Allah genis -- God's vastness

2. Alabama -- Allah Bamya -- God's graveyard

3. Appalachian -- Apa-la-che -- widespread/multitude

4. Shawnee -- sah ne -- great shah, or great king

5. Shenandoah -- sen doga (pronounced "shen-doah") -- happy natural setting

6. Shindig -- sen lik (pronounced "shen-lick") -- happy party

7. Krill (Appalachian term for a sprain or twisting of the ankle) -- kiril -- to twist or break

Kennedy also has available lists of Cherokee, Powhatan and Chippewa terms closely related to or identical to Turkish words and phrases.


Spanish History = Melungeon History?If the forerunners of Melungeons were, as Brent Kennedy and others suggest, from Spain, then what accounts for the apparent Turkish, Portuguese, Libyan, Jewish, Arab, and "renegade Greek" presence in Melungeon heritage?

The key, according to Kennedy, lies in the diversity of Spanish genes dating back to 711 A.D., when Muslim armies (Berber and Arab soldiers) conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula and made most of Spain and Portugal an Islamic nation for nearly 600 years. The Berber and Arab soldiers blended into the Spanish and Portuguese gene pool, eventually considering themselves Spanish or Portuguese.

During the Spanish Inquisition, these "conversos" were targeted for torture, and thousands left the Iberian Peninsula for France, Tunesia and Morocco. Some were pressed into Spanish military service and sent to the New World -- specifically, to Juan Pardo's SantaElena colony.

So the Spanish and Portuguese who came to America in the 16th century were already a complex Mediterranean genetic mixture.

Kennedy also suggests that Melungeons descend from Ottoman (Turkish and other Muslim) slaves brought by Sir Francis Drake to Roanoke Island, N.C. from the Caribbean; Mediterranean/Middle Eastern blood may also have been introduced through the importation of Turkish silkworm workers to Jamestown.

All of which, if substantiated, makes Kennedy's broad-based plea for ethnic tolerance perfectly logical: "We truly are, at least today, a melange of many peoplesÉ we are living proof thatÉ all human beings harbor a racial diversity, known or unknown, that truly ties them to other human beings. It is an indisputable point. We are all the same."


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