Melungeons and the Underground Railroad
By Henry Robert Burke
The Melungeon sub-culture has contributed greatly to
Appalachian and American Culture in many ways. Now that DNA
analysis is establishing who Melungeons were/are, I feel
induced to tell the significant role that Melungeons served
in creating and operating the Underground Railroad Movement
in the United States. The Underground Railroad began during
the early period of slavery, when the first slave received
help in his effort to escape from slavery. Sometime between
1793 and 1815, the Underground Railroad became organized and
eventually helped thousands of fugitive slaves from the
South make their way to freedom in Canada and places
outside the jurisdiction of U.S. Fugitive Slave Laws.
Dr. Brent Kennedy, a genuine Melungeon and founder of the
Melungeon Movement, eloquently stated his pride in a
statement issued at the completion of the first DNA
analysis, in which he furnished a blood sample for testing.
He said in effect that his DNA shows various percentages
European, Native American, Northern India (Gypsy) and
African genes. He feels that DNA analysis of other
Melungeons will show similar results. Dr. Kennedy concluded
his statement expressing his pride for being connected to
all the people of this World! Dr. Kennedy and all Melungeons
should feel proud of the contributions that their Melungeons
ancestors have made to the cause of freedom.
During the Slavery Era, the mobility of black people in the
United States was very limited. Laws were enacted not only
to protect slave owners from loss or their human property,
but to prevent slave insurrections. While there always a few
free blacks, they were, for the most part ineffectual in
moving about freely. Black people could easily be identified
and restricted because of their dark skin and Negro
features. Across the entire United States, there were
countless local, state and/or federal laws that restricted
the movements and activities Negroes slave or free. This
made it impossibe for blacks to travel long distances to
establish and maintain the crucial communications to
operate the Underground Railroad.
Legalizing the enslavement of black people from Africa began
in Massachusetts in 1640 and in Virginia around 1661, but it
took until 1700 before Africans completely replaced
indentured servants as the main labor force on tobacco
plantations in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Many
Gypsy people had been purposely rounded up and arrested all
over England other parts of Europe, and transported to the
English Colonies, many ending up in Maryland, Virginia, and
North Carolina to serve indentures on tobacco plantations.
Unlike white European indentured servants, most Gypsies were
assigned to the hard grueling labor, that eventually became
the work of slaves. While some history of Gypsy people is
very well documented, records of the harsh treatment
accorded them as indentured servants on the tobacco
plantations is not! The accounts are scanty and often not
well explained, but enough historical evidence exists to
verify that Gypsy indentured servants were often treated so
bad, they died before completing their term of indenture.
Many Melungeons look like well tanned white people.
Typically Melungeons are tall people with straight hair and
European features. There was one very important difference
that distinguished Melungeons from ordinary white people.
Because of the treatment they received as indentured
servants and other forms of social discrimination they had
endured, Melungeons hated slavery!
When their terms of indenture were completed, Melungeons
moved out to live on the outward fringes of the advancing
frontier. These were places that naturally attracted
fugitive slaves. Melungeons, who were already established on
the frontier sympathized with fugitive slaves as well as
Indians. Melungeons could and did travel freely on the
American frontier. From experience they know routes that
could lead fugitive slaves to freedom. Melungeons felt
compelled to help fugitive slaves.
After the American Revolutionary War, western expansion
began along and across the Ohio River. Melungeons were
already scattered across the mountainous regions of western
Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. They already had
experienced helping fugitive slaves. When the northern
states abolished slavery between 1777 and 1803 the
Mason-Dixon Line became the boundary between the Northern
states where slavery was illegal and the Southern States
where slavery was legal.
In the North, white abolitionists joined Melungeons living
north of the Ohio River and organized the Underground
Railroad, but the Melungeon influence reached far back into
slave states like Virginia. The slave culture was so
entrenched in the South that it would have been practically
impossible for fugitive slaves to escape and make it to the
Northern States without the help of Melungeons.
Melungeons in the North maintained communications with their
relatives in the South. Using this line of communications,
Melungeons in the South provided a crucial service by
passing fugitive slaves from one Underground Railroad
station to the next!
Melungeons living in the North along the Ohio River
continued this activity but were eventually joined by
increasing numbers of free blacks and white abolitionists.
The Underground Railroad continued to gain momentum right up
until the American Civil War began. To cap off their effort
for freedom, many Melungeons joined the Union Forces and
fought in the Civil War.
I encourage Melungeons to examine your family histories
closely. I am sure that you will find that your ancestors
worked on the Underground Railroad!