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Wayne WinklerWayne Winkler: “There are still a great many possibilities open for exploration.”
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1991 Blue Ridge CountryBrent Kennedy’s 1992 story in was brought into being at least in part by Joan Vannorsdall’s 1991 piece in this issue of Blue Ridge Country.
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Brent Kennedy Story 1992Brent Kennedy’s 1992 story in these pages was brought into being at least in part by Joan Vannorsdall’s 1991 piece in Blue Ridge Country.
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2006 Blue Ridge CountryBrent Kennedy’s 1992 story was brought into being at least in part by Joan Vannorsdall’s 1991 piece in Blue Ridge Country. The magazine’s most recent visit to Melungeon territory was in 2006.
Everybody loves a mystery. And even more so when it involves real people, and it apparently gets solved.
That was a large measure of the huge and positive reaction this publication received upon publishing Brent Kennedy's 1992 "The Melungeon Mystery Solved: Unraveling a Family's Heritage." The piece, spawned by a year-earlier article on the subject by Joan Vannorsdall, not only ostensibly resolved Kennedy’s lifelong puzzle about his heritage, but also launched a new career for him, as perhaps the nation's leading expert on the Melungeons – described by Vannorsdall in her ‘91 piece as “not black nor Indian nor caucasian . . . and living high atop Newman’s Ridge, running 25 miles from Hancock County, Tenn., up into Virginia’s Lee and Scott counties.”
Multiple books and articles followed for Kennedy; others celebrated their heritage, and began to gather to do so and to do further research on the people Kennedy traced back to 710 A.D, and the “Moors,” as these Arab conquerers were called by their Spanish subjects.
Kennedy’s detailed presentation – carrying through the Spanish reconquering the Arabs in 1200, the blending of the cultures, the Spanish Inquistion beginning in 1502 and the arrival on the South Carolina Coast, perhaps in the 1580s, of descendants of the Moors (now called Moriscos) – was greeted with general enthusiasm and excitement, both from our general readership and from many people who felt that they too now had a real and sudden understanding of their heritage – as Kennedy characterized it, “descendants of the Phoenicans and the Carthaginians, the conquerers of Spain and Portugal, the builders of Casablanca, Marrakech and Tangier.”
Jump ahead 20 years to the appearance, this June, of an Associated Press story about a DNA study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Genetic Genealogy – a study which found that the people referred to as Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European heritage. One theory: The various Melungeon lines sprang from unions of black and white indentured servants, in the mid-1600s’ pre-slavery days in Virginia.
The study was limited in geography to the core of “Melungeon territory” – the area in and around northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, and examined only unbroken lines dating back to the 1830s.
Reaction among people who have identified themselves as Melungeon ranged from surprise and dismay to perspectives along the lines of “all of us are multiracial; let’s go have lunch.”
Jump back 20 years again for a moment, to a letter to this magazine dated July 15, 1992, from Roger L. Burkhart of Gaithersburg, Md.
Burkhart, apparently a man of patience, has recently provided a copy of that letter (which we did not run in ‘92), along with a copy of the AP story on the study and a note including acid phrasing along the lines of “now modern science has left Mr. Kennedy, and you, no place to hide.”
Burkhart’s letter from ‘92 was similar in tone and directness. Among its points:
“I know you are a popular magazine whose aim is entertainment, not a scholarly journal with the goal of truth and accuracy. Even so, before giving space to an author’s account of an alleged 3,000-plus-year history of his family, you should demand more evidence than vague references to a ‘review of the best available [but undefined] evidence’ and ‘archival records’ of ‘what members of my own family had said as far back as 1830’ [again not only no specific indication of what they said or how someone else could check it, let alone how records less than 200 years old fitted into tracing his family back to the Phoenicians of 3,000 years ago. ]”
We have, herewith, at last acknowledged Roger Burkhart’s letter, the complete text of which (as well as the AP story, a link to the Journal of Genetic Genealogy story and all of Blue Ridge Country’s earlier stories on the subject) are on our website at
More importantly, where does all of this leave the people who have dedicated years of their lives to research and work based on the early assertions of Brent Kennedy (who suffered a devastating stroke in 2005, leaving him partially paralyzed and unable to speak)?
In at least one case, not too far from where they were before the AP story appeared: Wayne Winkler, director of public radio station WETS-FM/HD in Johnson City, Tenn., author of “Walking Toward Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia,” and my kind and gracious host on a 2006 tour of Melungeon territory (“Mystery of History,” September/October 2006), puts it this way:
“My own view is that future Melungeon researchers would do better to search for our ancestors among the free African-American populations of Virginia and the Carolinas, rather than seeking what [Melungeon-topics author] Darlene Wilson called the ‘exotic offshore others’ that have been a part of the Melungeon legend for so long. But there are still a great many possibilities open to exploration.”
Winkler, in reviewing the Burkhart letter, offers additional perspectives:
“Brent Kennedy was not a careful scholar. Had he been a careful scholar, I doubt he could have generated the enthusiasm for the topic of Melungeons and mixed-ethnic Americans that led to more serious efforts to learn about Melungeon ancestry and history. As he stated in his book, he saw his role as a provocateur, a prod to encourage scholars to learn more about these populations while the history was still recoverable.”
And on the DNA study, Winkler notes:
“Mr. Burkhart seems to believe the recent DNA study completely refutes Kennedy’s theories. In reality, the study leaves many possibilities open; it simply notes the presence of sub-Saharan African DNA in the male descendents of individuals documented as Melungeons in historical records. I’m in close contact with Jack Goins, Roberta Estes, and Janet Crain, three of the four authors of the study, and am quite familiar with the study (although the genetic information is way over my head). The Associated Press story, while accurate, left readers with the impression that Native American ancestry had been ruled out. That is not the case. Nor did the study conclusively rule out other ancestries, such as Portuguese.”
And so, may the research continue. We are all keenly interested, especially as we age, in where we came from and who came before us. We are all interested, no matter our age, in those around us. What Winkler writes in the “Conclusions and Speculations” section of his book is as true for every one of us as it is for those who are the subject of his book: “In recognizing the difficulties faced by our ancestors, we can also celebrate their perseverance, their determination, and their drive for a better future that allows us to celebrate a heritage they could not even acknowledge. Simply having Melungeon heritage does not make one a better person, but understanding the ramifications of that heritage may well do so."