Beneath Myth, Melungeons Find Roots of Oppression
Beneath Myth, Melungeons Find Roots of Oppression
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2000; Page A01
It usually begins simply enough. A blue-eyed, olive-skinned child asks a
parent: Who am I? Where did our family come from? In the mist-shrouded
hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the answers have long been evasive.
When Brent Kennedy started questioning his origins, an aunt doused old
family documents and photographs with gasoline and set them ablaze. "I hope
you burn in hell," another relative told him.
Bill Fields grew up hearing an elaborate, romanticized, totally concocted
genealogy traced back to a white matriarch captured by Indians.
Mary Ramsey Cameron's grandmother to this day refuses to even discuss the
family tree. But a sympathetic aunt once whispered a melodic word that she
implored Cameron to keep hush-hush:
For generations in Appalachia, the word has been an epithet and worse.
Melungeons, who have a mixed European, African and Native American heritage,
have been maligned and denied their basic rights. They have been pushed off
fertile land. They have been barred from schools. They have been prohibited
Now something extraordinary is happening here up on Stone Mountain and along
Tennessee's Newman's Ridge, two bastions where Melungeon ancestors retreated
from the land confiscations but could not escape the slurs. Descendants of
men and women who desperately tried to hide their backgrounds so they and
their children could pass as pure white are researching and proudly
embracing their mixed Melungeon roots.
"It's a betrayal of my ancestors," acknowledged Kennedy, a University of
Virginia administrator whom many credit with sparking the interest in
Melungeon studies. But, he added: "I'm also liberating them. We are finally
getting to the point where we are justifying who they were."
When about 1,000 people who are--or suspect they may be--Melungeon gathered
in Wise recently for a conference exploring often arcane theories about
their origins, many said they hope to set an example for Americans of all
"This is a movement," said Connie Clark, head of the Melungeon Heritage
Association and a Wise high school teacher who educates her students on
their Melungeon links. "Some people don't accept or tolerate differences.
Our mission is to show the world we are all one people. Who better to teach
that than those of us who are mixed? Our ancestors were persecuted. We were
raised believing we were white. And now we're saying we are not white. Race
doesn't matter. Here we are, poor Appalachians, and we're leading a
There probably would be no Melungeon movement if Kennedy hadn't gotten sick
Suddenly, he couldn't walk. His vision blurred. His joints throbbed. After
receiving a diagnosis of sarcoidosis, he began reading up on a disease
primarily found in people of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean descent. That
was odd. Kennedy's relatives had always said they were Scotch-Irish. To the
chagrin of some relatives, he began delving into his background. He became
convinced they were Melungeons.
When his condition improved, Kennedy reassessed his life, quit his job as a
fundraiser for nonprofit organizations in Atlanta and moved home to Wise.
His mission in life was to unravel not just one family's past but the
elusive mystery of the Melungeon people.
Even the numbers of Melungeons are little more than guesses. Researchers
believe some 75,000 people are proud of their Melungeon background. Another
250,000 know they're Melungeon and don't want to know anything more about
it. Theoretically, millions could have a Melungeon ancestor and not know it.
Family surnames are often a hint. Mullins, Goins, Collins and Roberson are
classics. Some Melungeons suspect Abe Lincoln, Elvis Presley and Ava Gardner
may all have had some Melungeon blood.
But it can be difficult to trace. Historical records are sometimes sketchy
and amorphous. Family sagas are often clouded with unfilled blanks and
outright lies. When records do exist, Melungeons were variously described as
"Portyghee," Indian, white or "free persons of color." Who could blame
Melungeons for shunning census takers? Some historical accounts were
"The Melungeons are filthy, their home is filthy," read a 1891 report
published in the magazine Arena. "They are rogues, natural born rogues,
close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful, cowardly and, to use their own
word, sneaky. In many things they resemble the Negro. . . . They are an
unforgiving people, although . . . they are slow to detect an insult, and
expect to be spit upon."
To this day, there are teenagers around Wise who can remember their parents'
admonitions to behave or else "the Melungeons will get you."
Kennedy thought there had to be a more balanced, complete explanation of how
Melungeons came to be a much-villified "tri-racial isolate," as academics
tag them in what many Melungeons consider a dismissive box.
As his search broadened, Kennedy began attracting a group of academics,
physicians and fellow Melungeons interested in probing Melungeon origins.
Partly through research, partly through extrapolation, they have proposed a
raft of theories, which Kennedy outlined in a controversial 1997 book called
"The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People; An Untold Story of
Ethnic Cleansing in America."
They believe they carry the genes of sailors, explorers and indentured
servants--all men--who coupled with Native American women in the late 16th
and early 17th centuries.
One thread suggests they may have links to Portuguese and Spanish settlers
left behind from the Spanish colony of Santa Elena, which today is Beaufort,
S.C. Another theory traces them to Ottoman Turks and Moors who were galley
slaves aboard Spanish ships and may have been freed by Sir Francis Drake on
Roanoke Island, N.C. Still another possible connection is Turkish and
Armenian craftsmen working in Virginia settlements in the mid-1600s.
Some believe their very name, Melungeon (pronounced meh-lun-jun), may be a
derivation of the Turkish Mulun can, which translates as "damned soul." As
Anglo-Saxons moved to the New World, the theory goes, the dark-skinned
people with European features who already were there were shoved off fertile
land into the hinterlands until they ended up in the hardscrabble mountains
None of this has been proved to the satisfaction of most academics. They
caution that Melungeons may be leaping to conclusions. And though many
Melungeons note the African component of their background, some critics
suggest the focus on exotic Turkish links is an attempt to distance
themselves from their black ancestry.
Virginia DeMarce, a former president of the National Genealogical Society,
notes that Melungeon is neither a race nor ethnicity, but a melange of
racial genes that differs in every Melungeon family. She dismisses the
theory of a Turkish link as undocumented fantasy, and many academics concur.
"It's a myth designed to give them some self-esteem they never had," said
David Henige, a University of Wisconsin historian who specializes in African
oral traditions. "They fail to realize it's not accidental that there is no
evidence of these things."
Research into Melungeons can be as significant for some African Americans as
it is for white Melungeons. For Kevin Hayes, a technical manager for IBM in
Atlanta, it may help explain why he and his mother were born with sixth
fingers that were amputated at birth and why an aunt has diseases more
typical among Mediterranean people.
"The African American community is more accepting of not being pure
African," said Hayes, who discovered Melungeons while searching a
genealogical site on the Internet. "This country is a greater melting pot
than most people imagine. People of mixed heritage need to acknowledge it
and speak out about it if we are going to have any hope of overcoming
Science is beginning to shed some light on origins discarded or forgotten
generations ago. DNA tests in 1990 on blood samples from 177 Melungeons are
consistent with Mediterranean, especially Portuguese, traits. Testing for
Turkish links is just beginning.
"It's at least possible," said Chester DePratter, a University of South
Carolina archaeologist digging at the Santa Elena site and an adviser to the
Melungeon Heritage Association. "The evidence is there for some things, and
others you need to be cautious about interpreting."
Although the Turkish Embassy says its government takes no official position
on Melungeons, many Turks have embraced the Melungeons as long-lost cousins.
The University of Virginia at Wise and Dumlupinar University in Ankara
recently established faculty and student exchanges. The towns of Wise and
Cesme on the Aegean coast of Turkey are sister cities. One of Cesme's main
streets has been renamed Wise Avenue. Melungeon heritage tours to Turkey
have been reciprocated by Turkish tours coming to Appalachia. In 1996, Cesme
dedicated a "Melungeon Mountain" overlooking the sea; about 30 visiting
Melungeons have their names on small metal plaques attached to trees on the
And the Melungeon Heritage Association has just been accepted into the
Assembly of Turkish-American Associations.
"We were surprised at first, then extremely excited," said Guler Koknar, the
executive director. "It's not a clear-cut connection. But we're supportive
of it. Who are we to say: 'We don't want you'?"
For many Melungeons, who have puzzled over convoluted family histories and
unusual diseases, the emerging explanations just make more sense.
Wayne Winkler, a radio station manager whose mother is Jewish and father is
Cherokee, said tracing his heritage to Melungeons has given him a sense of
"On the reservation, I was the Jew," he said. "In Hebrew school, I was the
Indian. With Melungeons, it's like a shoe that finally fits."
For many Melungeons, the debate over their roots is as much about class as
it is about race. It's a message to non-Melungeon folk in Appalachia, and to
the world at large: The days of judging us are over. We're judging ourselves
"Appalachia is that place where you ain't never gonna get white enough, but
spent an incredible amount of time trying," said Darlene Wilson, a Melungeon
sociologist. "You can't have a middle class unless you've got an underclass.
America needed Appalachia the way Appalachia needed Melungeons."
Ever since President John F. Kennedy, Melungeons say, politicians have used
the poorest and most disheveled among them for staged photos that
stereotyped them as poor, crude and uneducated hillbilly moonshiners.
"This is about Appalachian people taking control of saying what we are,"
said Bill Fields, publisher of the Melungeon newsletter, Under One Sky. "The
academics don't like it, but we're telling ourselves our own history. That
hasn't happened before in this part of the country."