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Pioneer researcher Brent Kennedy
His 1992 Blue Ridge Country article and 1994 book
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Mattie Ruth Johnson (left) with family in the 1950s.
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Mahala "Big Haley" Mullins
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Mattie Ruth Johnson
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She's in front of the family's dairy, circa 1930.
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Mattie Ruth Johnson
As a girl, she attended Prospect School.
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She's the creator of the Melungeon Web site.
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Her mother told of scrubbing her neck to try to make it white.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
"Plecker left office in 1945. The following year he was hit and 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. 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.
2. 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.
- 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:
- Allegheny -- Allah genis -- God's vastness
- Alabama -- Allah Bamya -- God's graveyard
- Appalachian -- Apa-la-che -- widespread/multitude
- Shawnee -- sah ne -- great shah, or great king
- Shenandoah -- sen doga (pronounced "shen-doah") -- happy natural setting
- Shindig -- sen lik (pronounced "shen-lick") -- happy party
- 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 Santa Elena 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."
A Firsthand Account
Following is an excerpt from Mattie Ruth Johnson's book, "My Melungeon Heritage: A Story of Life on Newman's Ridge." It's a detailed and evocative account, with one curious (and perhaps revealing) quirk: While the author is herself Melungeon in both her maternal and paternal familial lines, she refers to Melungeons as "they":
Most people around the mountain used the Farmer's Almanac signs to plant their crops. Certain vegetables planted at the wrong time would not produce well; some would rot, some would be all vine or root, while others would not grow at all. It seemed that there was a season for everything. Not only did we have spring, summer, fall, and winter, but also Indian summer, dogwood winter, blackberry winter, dog days, dew days, and many others. When the farmers talked of planting, they mentioned planting when the signs were in the neck, arms, legs, bowels, full moon, old moon, or new moon.... During dew days, there was extra dew on the grass, and you usually saw a lot of black dewberries... on the ground. If you had a cut or sore and dew days dew got on it, it would take longer to heal and would be more sore than usual. And it was true; it happened to me. When my cuts or nicks would touch the dew, they would often become so painful they would make me cry.