Intro from Jay Allison: There may come a day when races are so blended as to be irrelevant, but not yet. For our first 2012 Transom Donor Fund piece, producer Mary Helen Miller explores the racial identity of Melungeons in Appalachia. It’s not an easy task to come up with a definition, as it turns out, even in the age of DNA. The truth of heritage can be tough to admit for some. Mary Helen’s piece will clear things up for you, as clear as possible anyway, and includes a trip to the 16th annual Melungeon Reunion in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.
About A Code To Live By In Appalachia
“Mysterious” is probably the first word most people associate with the Melungeons. They were a mixed race group that settled in southern Appalachia in the late 1700s. They lived in their own communities, separate from their white neighbors. Some stayed in those communities as late as the mid-20th century.
The oldest generations of Melungeons had a striking look: dark skin, straight black hair, blue eyes. Nobody knew where they had come from or how, exactly, they ended up in the mountains along the Tennessee-Virginia border. Melungeons themselves often explained their distinct looks by claiming Native American or Portuguese ancestry. But their white neighbors would sometimes claim they had African heritage.
The mystery of the Melungeon people drew me in, just like it’s drawn in so many others. Growing up in Tennessee, I remember my mom occasionally mentioning the Melungeons. Whatever remarks she made always seemed to end with: “… and nobody knows where they’re from. Isn’t that something?”
Recently, a little googling led me to Jack Goins, the force behind the Melungeon DNA Project. Jack is a retired TV salesman in Hawkins County, Tennessee, who is descended from Melungeons. He’s been gathering DNA samples from other descendants to try to get some answers about Melungeon ancestry.
So Who Are the Melungeons, Really?
Jack’s DNA project is ongoing, but so far, he’s found that, for the most part, Melungeons have sub-Saharan African and European roots. These findings have surprised some Melungeon descendants who had assumed they were Native American or Portuguese. The study only found a single instance of Native American heritage in the group, and no Portuguese markers. Jack himself was surprised to find out his paternal line was African, because his great, great grandparents had been marked as Portuguese on the 1880 census. He theorizes that their predecessors had immigrated from an African country, such as Angola, that had been under Portuguese rule.
Jack co-authored a study on Melungeon DNA in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy. It was published shortly after I met him last year. The Associated Press ran an article on the study with headlines like, “Melungeons aren’t who they thought they were,” and “Melengeon DNA study reveals ancestry, upsets ‘a whole lot of people.’”
A whole lot of people were upset. But from what I could tell, they were upset more by the way Jack conducted the study than the results he found. People had to be descended from a very specific “core group” of Melungeons to be included in the study. Plus, it was a Y-line test, so it only included men. So, a lot of people who identified as Melungeon descendants couldn’t be in the study. And when the article came out and stated definitively where the Melungeons had come from, it ruffled some feathers.
Telling a story without answers
Lots of people still claim Melungeon heritage. The hardest part about this project was getting a grasp on who the Melungeons actually were, and who counts as Melungeon now.
When I began the story, I was expecting to find hard answers. I thought my timing with the story was impeccable. At the time I was starting my research, Jack happened to be finishing up his study. A published paper on the Melungeons promised numbers and facts—a tantalizing prospect. I was going to be able to tell a story of a group of people who had never know where they were from, until they turned to Science. My story would start with a mystery, and end with a solution. Bam!
The more people I met, the more opinions I heard about who the Melungeons were. I realized that Jack’s study only encompassed a fraction of all the people who claim Melungeon ancestry today. I went to a Melungeon reunion in Virginia last summer, and practically everyone there told a slightly different version of who the Melungeons were. Some people thought Melungeons were from one, specific community in Tennessee. Others seemed to think most mixed race people in southern Appalachia counted. By the time I left the get-together, more than one person had tried to convince me that I might be Melungeon, too. After I revealed that I had ancestors from a certain county in Virginia, one guy asked if he could feel my head, and he reached over to the base of my skull. “Uhuh. You’ve got the Melungeon bump.” Was it really that easy to tell? Was everyone from Virginia with a bump Melungeon? Whom was I to believe?
As a journalist, my instincts tell me to find the most specific, accurate information on a topic and explain it as clearly as possible. But in the case of the Melungeons, this was basically impossible. I never came up with a hard and fast definition of the Melungeons. So, instead, I decided to focus on people who strongly self-identified as Melungeon, or who thought they might be, but were hesitant to claim that ancestry for some reason.
I still can’t tell you exactly who the Melungeons were, or who they are now. But I hope my story gives some insight as to what it was like to be a Melungeon in the South when racism was at its height, and what it means to claim that heritage now.
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Additional support for this work provided by the Transom Donor Fund.