Among and along Appalachian ridges and valleys in Tennessee, Virginia and other states is the ancestral home of a mysterious American people, the Melungeons. The dark-skinned mountaineers were whispered to be gypsies; others believed them to be descendants of Native Americans or of ship-wrecked Portuguese sailors. Though the history and settlement of the Melungeons in the Appalachian region is still unclear, the mystery their racial makeup has been solved, and at a propitious time, writes Andrew Miller of The Economist.
The name Melungeon may come from the Greek word melas, meaning dark or black, or early French settlers use of the word mélange to describe them, but the name soon became a racial slur. Melungeons were no strangers to prejudice or segregation, and their ill treatment is a plausible reason as to how they settled in and around isolated Hancock County, Tennessee, 200 or more years ago. The county was, for the most part, outside the grip of Jim Crow laws.
Kathy Lyday, a professor at Elon University in North Carolina, has researched Melungeons appearances in periodicals and literature for the past century. She spoke with Dale Neal from the Citizen-Times in Asheville about seeing Melungeons in newspapers as a child. “Melungeons are clearly not like the mountaineers I knew,” Lyday told Neal. “They look different. They have darker skin, darker hair and blue eyes. In older photos, their physical appearance looks almost Mediterranean or Middle Eastern.”
Researchers have re-defined Melungeon as tri-racial, theorizing that they are descendants of Europeans, Africans and Native Americans. In 2012, however, the Journal of Genetic Genealogy released a DNA study that reported families historically called Melungeons “are the off-spring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.” Today, Melungeons stretch across East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and into areas of Eastern Kentucky.
At a time when mixed ethnic backgrounds are becoming a more comfortable topic of conversation, emerges a peculiar people who can declare they do not have the racial identity of one-half or one-third of an ethnicity. Melungeons can identify, rather, as wholly sub-Saharan African and European. The “invention” of the Melungeon race and the unraveling mystery of their origins bring new clarity to a muddy and infamous past of race relations in America, Miller writes.
“There may be a deeper honesty, and a kind of idealism, in this voluntary embrace of a mixed-ethnic background—a make-up common to millions of Americans, but which many remain reluctant to acknowledge,” Miller writes. “And there is something optimistic and timely about the vision of race that the Melungeons imply. These days, on university campuses and beyond, the old, humanistic faith that everyone is the same at heart has been ousted by an essentialist idea of black- and whiteness, which sees the experiences of each as distinct, even mutually incomprehensible. The grievances that underpin this attitude are often legitimate, but the result is that race in America can sometimes seem like a prison. The notion of racial categories as fluid and optional, even invented, is a refreshing counterpoint to this ossifying sense of unbridgeable difference.”
The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.