WHO ARE THE MELUNGEONS?
Melungeons, once a term of contempt for a few families scattered upon the ridges of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, is now a name embraced by people who can trace relations to those original ancestors that wore that label. But it also is a name now being embraced by numerous people of ethnically mixed Appalachian ancestry as well.
Though there are researchers and descendants that would limit the designation Melungeon to only the descendants of the original, historic, Melungeons, this recognized word has taken on an expanded meaning in recent years. There are many that have the same, or similarly mixed ancestry as those original historical Melungeons, there are numerous people in Appalachia of mixed ethnic ancestry. Because of racist pressure many of the ancestors of today’s ethnically mixed Appalachian people cannot discover their ethnic origin—their ancestors did an excellent job hiding their source of “color”.
Today these people of unknown ethnic origin have taken the name Melungeon as an umbrella term for themselves. Some of these people of mixed ethnic ancestry do have surnames common to the original Melungeons, but have not been able to make a “solid” connection. Others have hints at American Indian, Portuguese, Black, Jewish, or other ethnic ancestry, but the exact origin is hidden in the dim past. And still others have a combination of White, Black, Indian, and other ancestry. For all these people the name Melungeon has been put into use.
I can well understand the desire of the documented descendants of the original Melungeons to be a bit jealous of that designation. But I think it is a mistake not to embrace their fellow ethnically mixed Appalachian neighbors, and possible relatives. The Melungeon Movement has come to mean much more than a few scattered descendant remnants of those original Melungeons. It has come to mean acceptance of an ethnically diverse past of many people with Appalachian roots.
There should always be an acknowledgment of those original Melungeon progenitors. And recognition of the documented descendants of those ancestors, but I believe it would be a mistake to squelch a movement that has begun to take on a life all its own. A movement that recognizes its origin, and through empathetic ethnic roots has become something much larger than the “seed” of the original few Melungeons that were at times persecuted, and suffered prejudice because of their color and ethnicity.
Melungeon as an umbrella term certainly would not of necessity need to include every person of color in Appalachia. Many, maybe most people of color in Appalachia know the source of their ethnic ancestry, and identify primarily or secondarily as that ethnic group. But there are untold others that are clearly not of just one, or even just two ethnic backgrounds, but of Tri-Ethnic: Black, White, Indian ancestry. And again, others may have even more than three such backgrounds.
From observance and communication there seems to be a pattern among those that claim Melungeon ancestry, but do not clearly connect with the original historic Melungeons. They are not usually distinguished as being of only one ethnic background, or they appear to be white, but not only white. They have roots tied to the Appalachian area. And they do not know the specific origin of the “dark” ethnic entry that is clearly in their ancestry. Most were told: Indian. Some had hints of: Colored, or Black. Still others had no hint at the origin, but it is clearly distinguished as some type of darker ancestry in their appearance, or the appearance of close relatives. Many such people now claim Melungeon ancestry.
I believe it is one of the most healthy things that has come out of Appalachia in recent years that people are recognizing their diverse origins. I also think that as long as the original, historic Melungeons are given their proper place in the Melungeon Movement that the descendants of those historic Melungeons should welcome the growth of this movement. These are also people with diverse ethnic origins, and Appalachian roots, these people can often sympathize, and empathize with being discriminated against because of color or ethnic background.
My own ancestry is clearly tied to Hawkins/Hancock County, Tennessee. My ancestor preceded known Melungeon ancestors into that area. I have a claim to historic Melungeon ancestry. But I welcome those who have a claim to ethnic ancestry of unknown origin, and that wish to wear the label Melungeon. We should remember that Melungeon appears not to have been a kind, lovingly applied label. It was a term of derision according to historic accounts. I personally welcome those who wish to acknowledge their ethnic Appalachian ancestry by the term Melungeon. I see it as complimentary to historic Melungeon descendants; it takes nothing away from those descendants, but rather puts into the public eye the origin of Melungeons, and the ethnic diversity of Appalachia.
Quote: Brent Kennedy, from a 1997 speech in North Carolina: "There are "two" working definitions of Melungeons: (1) those who have
maintained their identity over the centuries, and (2) those whose family members migrated outward, re-established new identities but share the culture,
genetics, etc. to some degree. Much of the conflict today resides over which definition the debator subscribes to. The current Melungeon identity resurgence is not unlike what transpired with Native American identity beginning in the
1960s. Even today, the Federally recognized tribes often find themselves in conflict with their non-recognized "long lost cousins" who are generally
seeking reunion, not out of greed, but out of a sincere emotional desire to recapture their past. Hopefully, Melungeons - both the long recognized ones
and the newly discovered ones - can avoid this conflict. It should be a simple matter to recognize the differences, and to incorporate both life experiences into a broader movement that pulls human beings together, as opposed to dividing them into smaller and smaller factions. Our strength will come from unity, not isolation."