Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Melungeon Ethnogenesis - Part V

It is difficult to communicate the enormous ‘leap of faith’ which statements such as those quoted above about Islamic and Judaic practices represent within the Melungeon population. To provide some perspective, consider that the Appalachian town in which one of the authors was raised had only two (known) Jewish families; the nearest synagogue was approximately 90 miles away in Knoxville, TN. There were but a handful of Catholic families and the children of these attended a small parochial school. The rest of the population was solidly Protestant, and among these, even Episcopalians were considered ‘unusual’.

Religion carried racial overtones, as well. The three Jewish students in the author’s high school were not welcomed to date non-Jewish students and had to travel as far as Charleston, S.C. to acquire girlfriends/boyfriends during high school and college. Their ethnicity rendered them not-quite-white and they were placed in the same ‘off-limits’ social category as two other Semitic students at the high school – two girls whose grandparents had come from Syria and Lebanon, respectively, and who were Christian, not Muslim (see Haley and Wilcoxon 2005 for a compelling discussion of recent racial exclusivity in California).

This social ‘fencing off’ occurred despite the fact that several other students of (at the time unknown/unrecognized) Melungeon descent had virtually the same physical features as these ‘known’ Semites. The comment above by one Melungeon that her daughter "looks" Jewish or Arabic is quite accurate. Many Melungeons have a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern appearance, yet their physical features remained invisible as markers of these ethnicities within the surrounding Appalachian population which deemed itself, and them, to be ‘white’ (see Bell 2005 for a discussion of how ‘whiteness’ was established as a racial, elite category in Colonial America).

To be willing to now step forward and acknowledge Jewish and Muslim ancestry and, to imbibe foods recognized as Jewish – or Muslim -- is not only to be willing to overturn generations of Christian church affiliation, but also to invite potential racial and ethnic hostility. Kennedy, for example, has announced having both Jewish and Muslim ancestry and has received death threats as a result.

Musical Traditions

Melungeons also have attempted to retrospectively trace the traditional Appalachian musical forms they grew up with to their newly discovered ethnic antecedents. The quote below concerns the dulcimer, an instrument indigenous to Appalachia.

I have a hammer dulcimer at home…I fell in love with the hammer dulcimer a few years back, thanks to the late Rich Mullins. I have heard the hammer dulcimer used in some of the newer TV commercials. My husband Dan tells me the hammer dulcimer is also a Jewish instrument, and around our house a lot of Jewish and Klezmer music is [now] being played – quite a change from being raised up in a country/bluegrass/folk music background. (August 4, 2004 MTA)

Another Melungeon list contributor posted an announcement she came across regarding Sephardic Jews, their diaspora from Spain, and their musical heritage:

In 1492 the Jews left Spain, which they called Sepharad, at the demand of the Inquisitors. They scattered worldwide, taking their culture with them. More than five centuries later their descendants still carry that heritage in ritual, prayer, story, and song…One member of the group The Sons of Sepharad….is none other than Chicago’s Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi...He is joined by an award-winning Sephardic guitarist, Morocco’s Gerard Edery…Edery also lends the group his own ensemble’s percussionist…Rex Benincasa. On tenor is a fellow Moroccan, cantor and oudist Aaron Bensoussan...Consuelo Luz’ voice is smoky and sultry, closer to Sade, Anita Baker…or her fellow Cuban, Celia Cruz. Luz was born in Chile where she was raised Catholic, only to discover and embrace her Jewish heritage later in life. (April 17, 2003, MTA)

Other Melungeons, who additionally have Roma/Gypsy heritage, claim to discern retrospective ethnic connections to traditional Appalachian musical forms, as well:

Musically speaking certainly there is a connection of the people of Roma and the stylings of the mountain music which evolved into bluegrass music. If you go to my ethnomusical site and click on the link for a sample of a Turkish man playing a Roma song, you can hear something very familiar. (May 9, 2003 MTA)

Perhaps as profound as discerning Roma, Sephardic or other ethnic traditions in Appalachian music, is the growing realization within the community that many of the earliest and most influential country music performers were actually Melungeon – a case in point being the Carter family of southwestern Virginia.

How was Mother Maebelle and A. P. Carter related?…My Mom saved a 1971 TV Guide story about them…The story says that "although Johnny Cash may be a star, Mother Maybelle is a whole chapter in the history of American music. Maybelle Addington Carter is the Queen Mother of country music. Members of the Carter Family singers were the single most influential force in American Country music from 1927 to World War II. Alvin Pleasant Carter (A. P.) was born in 1891 in Poor Valley [Va.]...One day in 1915 A. P. crossed Clinch Mountain and brought home a bride, Sarah Dougherty; then in 1926, A. P.’s brother brought home Sarah’s 17-year-old first cousin, Maybelle Addington. Maybelle brought as part of her trousseau a guitar." Sarah and Maebelle were first cousins…if I’ve got it right, Sarah married a Carter and Maebelle married a Carter. (September 6, 2003 MTA)

The retrospective discovery that the origins of Country music lie in a person-of-color subculture, especially one having Indigenous, Jewish and Muslim origins, may potentially lead to a re-framing of American culture, as

this musical form is perhaps the one considered to be most authentically ‘white’ and ‘American’.


In this section we explore Melungeon ethnicity as a social label that has been transformed over the past decade from a stigmatic identity, one that was hidden, denied and (if possible) discarded, to a prized personal possession, one that is displayed publicly with pride. We believe the lessons learned from the Melungeon experience are ones that are transferable to other multi-ethnic and multicultural ethnogenesis contexts and which expand the theoretical comprehension of consumers’ possessions to include one’s physical embodiment and social persona (Daniel 1992; Hall 1992; Thompson and Hirschman 1995).

From Mystery to Pariah

As with many examples of ethnogenesis, Melungeons entered the historical record as a people whose origins were uncertain: in an early magazine article (Arena, March 1891: 470-479) Drumgoole states:

When John Sevier attempted to organize the State of Franklin, there was living in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee a colony of dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people, supposed to be of Moorish descent, who affiliated with neither whites nor blacks, who called themselves Malungeons, and claimed to be of Portuguese descent.

By the first national census in 1790, several of these Melungeons were being classified as Free Persons of Color (FPC) or Mulatto -- racial classifications that were to have severe political and economic consequences for them. Why? Because together with authorizing the first national census, Congress in 1790 also passed America’s first naturalization law– limiting U.S. citizenship to "free white persons" (Lombardo, www.eugenicsarchive.org, 2004; see also Bell 2005). Americans with visible African, Asian, Indian or other ‘non-white’ features were effectively disenfranchised.

In 1838 all persons in the southeastern U.S. having recognizable American Indian features or ancestry (including hundreds of Melungeons) were forcibly "rounded-up" and "removed" a distance of 500 miles to Oklahoma by the Federal Government (Sattler 2005; Wilson 1992).

The Trail of Tears commenced with Melungeons on both sides of the barricades, as indicated by the presence of Melungeon surnames recorded afterwards in both the eastern and western bands of the Cherokee, and letters from Cherokees to Melungeon researchers. One of these researchers makes a case that Sequoyah, founder of the Cherokee written language, was a Melungeon caught up in this ethnic cleansing. Some [Melungeons] were forced to march at gunpoint alongside their Cherokee brethren, while others who were able to pass as "Portuguese" were allowed to stay behind (Adams 2001, p. 5).

With the conclusion of the Civil War, the dark-complexioned Melungeon families were viewed with suspicion by those outside Appalachia as possibly being ‘tainted’ by black African ancestry (Beale 1957, 1972; Berry 1972; Dane and Greissman 1972). Further, the influx of non-English speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe (e.g., Poland, Russia) and the Mediterranean (Italians, Greeks) during the 1880-1910 period stimulated a white Protestant Nativist movement across the United States (Hardin 2000, Lombardo 2004).

Beginning around 1910, many prominent social scientists, including several anthropologists, sociologists, biologists and physicians, became enamored with the notion of eugenics—a philosophy advocating the encouragement of breedingdesirable human qualities, while actively discouraging the promulgation of undesirable traits (Berson and Cruz 2001; Dolan DNA Learning Center; Dwyer 2003; Tyner 1999). Among the traits deemed undesirable were any physical features linking one to African, American Indian or Asian ancestry, those races being classified as less intelligent, less evolved and less desirable than white Europeans (see e.g., Grant, 1916, The Passing of the Great Race; Ernest Cox, 1918, White America).

…Across the U.S., over 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized, including 8,300 within the state of Virginia in the first half of the 1900’s. This shocking period of America’s history began in 1907 with a mixed-ancestry group based in central Indiana, the Tribe of Ishmael…a mixed-ethnic Muslim tribe originating from Shawnee Indians, Celtic "Tinkers" and West African Fulanis… (Adams, 2001, p. 7)

In Virginia, the eugenics movement was used to disenfranchise the Melungeon population through the Racial Integrity Act. Those persons whose ancestors had been listed as FPC or Mulatto were deemed racially unfit and prohibited from voting, testifying in court, owning land, holding public office, attending whites-only public schools, or marrying "white" persons (Mangum 1940; Reuter 1918; Wilson 2001; Williamson 1980). Few Melungeons were willing to openly challenge this legislation; however,

…one brave Melungeon man from Coeburn Mountain, VA resisted. Blocked by an unrelenting line of white townspeople as he attempted to vote, an equally unrelenting Floyd Nash pulled out a pistol, shot at their feet and walked through the scattering, terrified crowd into the polls. (Kennedy, 1997, p. 44)

The legacy of the eugenics paradigm extended so long in fact that [Virginia] state anti-miscegenation [i.e., race mixing] laws were not officially declared illegal until the landmark Supreme Court decision in the mid-1960’s, Loving vs. Virginia. Even as recently as 1960, Melungeon Heritage Association President Connie Clark’s family was still hiding from census takers. (Adams 2001, p.7)

Concurrently, the Ku Klux Klan, founded in Sweetwater, Tennessee in 1868, gained political and social power and by the late 1910’s and early 1920’s was holding massive rallies in Washington, D.C.. As a result of these overwhelming repressive forces, virtually all Melungeon families ceased to tell their children their actual ethnic ancestry and instead manufactured fictitious genealogies – and often counterfeited birth certificates -- connecting themselves to British, German and French Protestant antecedents (Kennedy 1997; Wilson 2001). The Melungeon label was disavowed; one’s dark, Mediterranean and Indigenous features, always apparent when looking in the mirror, were denied; one’s ancestors were buried in deceit as "Christians"; one’s true self rendered invisible. As one Melungeon recently put it: "I feel like my whole background has been a lie." (MTA, September 29, 2002)

The Resurrection and Reconstruction of Melungeon Ethnicity:

The Process of Ethnogenesis

A journalist (Morello 2000) recently remarked, "There probably wouldn’t be a Melungeon Movement, if Kennedy hadn’t gotten sick in 1988". She is very likely correct. Kennedy’s near fatal attack of Familial Mediterranean Fever/Sarcoidosis, its initial misdiagnosis, and his later discovery that he was suffering from a genetically inherited disease linked to persons of Mediterranean descent, served as the impetus for his investigation of his family’s fictitious "Scotch-Irish" ancestry. Because Kennedy’s conjectures resonated with earlier Appalachian attempts to revive Melungeon history (Kingsport Times 1972; Nordheimer 1971; Yarbrough 1968, 1973), with the availability of personal DNA testing services, and with increasing societal acceptance and, upon occasion, celebration of multicultural/multiracial ancestry, the Melungeon Movement has flourished during the past decade.

Indeed, Melungeon ethnicity has become a prized asset to such an extent that there are now social, political and personal conflicts within the community over who has the right to claim this ethnic label. The core of the conflict lies in the geographic areas and ancestral lineages deemed to constitute "true", "pure" or "authentic" Melungeon-ness.

Because several early magazine and newspaper articles (e.g., Drumgoole 1890 a, b, 1891 a, b)) specified the Newman’s Ridge/Vardy area of Hancock County, Tennessee as a geographic area in which Melungeons lived, some of the present day residents in this area began claiming that only they are genuine Melungeons. As will be illustrated in texts below, these advocates viewed Melungeon ethnicity as restricted to only three or four ancestral lines and additionally proposed that one must live on Newman’s Ridge currently to be considered a Melungeon – this became labeled the "Ridge-only" criterion (Elder 2000). Not having ancestry from one of the proposed founding lines or having ancestors who had migrated away from the Newman’s Ridge/Vardy community rendered one non-Melungeon. Sociologically, this was a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, transformation of a stigmatized ethnic status from a liability to an asset, with exclusionary boundaries being established in less than a five-year period.

Because Melungeon ethnicity was now valuable, those persons who viewed themselves as Melungeons, but did not meet the "Ridge-only" geographic/ancestral criteria, responded with counter arguments supporting their claims to the ethnic label. For example, Curtis Christie, a Melungeon not from Newman’s Ridge, wrote to the Melungeon-List at Rootsweb:

(March 27, 2004) No one person: not a Ridge-only and not the [list] moderator should be allowed to (1) [let] the M-List to be used as someone’s - or some clique’s - little hobby horse with which to trample on the rights of others, or (2) to allow some philosophy to use it as a kind of power base from which to attempt a hostile takeover of Melungeon-ness, or (3) to unsub people as a way of proving who’s in charge…

Rick Stewart, a Melungeon and Cherokee descendant living in West Virginia, and also not from Newman’s Ridge, responded to this posting by stating:

Curtis, this was a very interesting post...Of the leaders in this Melungeon research, I trust only Nancy [Sparks Morrison], you, and Brent [Kennedy] and y’all’s opinions. From what I recall of the last definition, West Virginia and most of VA and NC were excluded from the term Melungeon… I have a fair amount of ancestry from Scott Co., VA, but have no desire to connect with the "Ridgers". [My ancestors] cleared out of Scott Co. for WVA and KY anyway with their dark complexions in the early 1800’s…" (Rick Stewart Mel-L List March 27, 2004)

Tim Hashaw, an African American and Melungeon descendant now living in Texas, voiced a similar response:

Curtis, we have lost numerous West Virginians, Virginians, eastern Kentuckians and others from Melungeon research [due] to the vagueness of the term Melungeon and the downright dismissal of our being Melungeons by the Ridge Onlys and others. These people could have contributed much to this research and are now gone due to bigotry ... (Mel-L, 2003)

The Melungeon-List exchange below between Brent Kennedy – ironically viewed by some Newman’s Ridge Melungeons as a ‘wannabe’ since he was born ‘over the line’ in Virginia, not 30 miles east on Newman’s Ridge in Tennessee -- and Jack Goins, a Newman’s Ridge ‘born and bred’ Melungeon, illustrates well the internecine bickering over the now-prized possession of Melungeoness.


Brent Kennedy to Jack Goins (Mel-L, 2003): Jack, you seem here, as opposed to your book (Goins 2003), to be defining the Melungeons as a very few families from which only you and a few others are descended. This is extraordinarily restrictive and, in my strong opinion, extraordinarily incorrect (and, again, in direct conflict with what you have written in your book). And, importantly, quite a few historians would vehemently disagree with this rather limited approach.

JG: I believe everyone should have the right to self-identification, but what comes with this right is the obligation to show proof of that identification, this is where family history and genealogy can be used to locate your possible Melungeon ancestors.

BK: I agree to some degree, but you can’t selectively toss out evidence that runs counter to your agenda. The URL links above provide a wealth of documentation, pre-Brent Kennedy, to confirm this point…

JG: … I have forefathers who are named by historians, one by Walter Plecker in 1924, as Melungeons. They suffered the discrimination that came with this label, so I have an obligation and the determination to seek the truth…

BK: Walter Plecker was not a historian. He was a racist [Virginia] state registrar intent on driving all people of color out of the accepted social structure. The fact that you call this man a "historian" is troubling. Regarding family involvement, I also have an emotional stake here. My Mullinses, among others, are documented Virginia Melungeons with East Tennessee roots. My Bollings came from Hancock County and helped start the Melungeons on High Knob/Stone Mountain. A lot of my family are also on Plecker’s lists... But, most importantly, I have no problem in remembering and honoring all my ancestors, regardless of where they migrated and settled. Newman’s Ridge, or High Knob, or Stone Mountain, or Coeburn Mountain are all wonderful places, but pride in family shouldn’t begin and end on these mountaintops.

At this point the Melungeon-List moderator, Dennis Maggard, stepped in to comment:

One can always define the word Melungeon to mean only the residents of one particular ridge – thisis a common propaganda technique known as "victory by definition" – but in so doing you have defined Melungeons to be a very small and relatively uninteresting group, except to itself and its family historians... It is the larger, broader group from which the residents of this one ridge sprang and to which they are related which is of real interest and of real significance in the history of colonial Virginia…and southern Appalachia. In my opinion this broader group has just as much claim to the name Melungeon as the residents of one ridge who just happened to be the first Melungeons identified as such to the outside world. It’s not about living on one ridge or another; it’s about a group of interrelated families sharing a common socio-economic status and common hardships, because of their common mixed race ancestry. (Mel-L 2003)

A second exchange between a "Ridge-only" descendant, Joanne Pezzullo and Virginia Melungeon Nancy Sparks Morrison, is given below:

JP: [The Melungeons] are but a few surnames: Gibson, Collins, Nichols, Bunch, Goodman, Williams and a few others. The Gibsons and Collins were the "head and the source" of the Melungeons. Not the bloated list floating around the internet.

NM: [Melungeons are] a kinship group, and that’s what’s important, not what they were called in any one place and time. We can call the group anything we want. It’s the kinship group that is important, not what it is called, though Melungeon certainly seems as good a name as any.

JP: Yes, you can call yourself anything you want.

NM: My real message is that it’s not the name that matters, it’s the people that matter…I think…that Melungeon refers to a mixed-race people living in the southern Appalachian mountains. This area may include WV, VA, MD, KY, TN, NC, SC, and AL. They are related in many ways to other mixed race groups such as the Lumbees, Brass Ankles, Redbones, Jackson Whites, and Wesorts…A very small group of people have tried to take over the Melungeons as their exclusive property, while the rest of us are put into the ‘wannabe’ category. I don’t ‘wannabe’ anything, I am!!

This exchange resulted in postings from other members pleading for community cohesion:

I am totally ashamed of all this bickering about who is who. We are us. Now let’s get back to tracking down those ancestors, throw in a few recipes, some of the ways of our people, and relax… Remember united we stand, divided we fall…(August 25, 2002 Mel-L) Brenda

Melungeons are Melungeons because [they have] a shared history...All should be welcome and no one should be run off as several have in recent days...I can tellyou that in the early days of this list, that sense of community was felt here …But we are driving away folks from our shared community, just when we have really found that community. Will you join me in trying to make this a better one? (2002 Mel-L) Nancy [Sparks Morrison]


Despite these conflicts, in the past few years substantial progress has been made toward re-building community solidarity among Melungeons. Among the most powerful vehicles for this have been the annual summer "gatherings" sponsored by the Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA), at which persons from several Melungeon communities, as well as Melungeon-related American Indian tribes (e.g., Cherokee, Lumbee) are invited to participate and invited scholars (e.g., Paul Lombardo, Calvin Beale) discuss social and medical issues relevant to the Melungeon people.

Because few present day Melungeons experience racial or ethnic discrimination and are not generally classified as minority group members qualified for special consideration under Federal and State affirmative action policies, the struggle over the label Melungeon represents one’s right to claim this title as a personal possession, in and of itself. This position stands in contrast to the internecine struggles within American Indian communities, where being designated Cherokee or Lumbee or Lakota does imply access to valuable economic resources. Further, because even "Ridge-only" Melungeons are rarely able to assert their Melungeon ethnicity in everyday life by displaying, say, their genealogies or other social "proofs" of their ethnic status, other physically visible personal markers have come into play as evidence of Melungeon identity. These are discussed in the next section.

No comments: