Appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel, Knoxville, TN on Monday, November 3, 2003
 

STORY OF MELUNGEONS SHOWS EARLY DIVERSITY IN UPPER SOUTH
     In the mid-1970's, when I developed an interest in the people called Melungeons, the only two books I could find on the subject were Jean Patterson Bible's "Melungeons Yesterday and Today," and Bonnie Ball's "The Melungeons." Today there are several available and you can type the name of the once-mysterious ethnic group into your computer browser and get thousands of references.

     John Sevier, Tennessee's first governor, was told by the Cherokees that they had long referred to Melungeons as "as blue-eyed Indians." The term "Melungeon" was probably given to them by French explorers, the first Europeans who ran into them, long before the Scotch-Irish arrived. Wherever it came from, it was a term of contempt, equivalent tp "mongrel."

     They were spread throughout the Southern Appalachians under various names - Brass Ankles, Carmelites, Lumbee Indians and Redbones - but they were concentrated in what is now Hancock County, Tenn. They were mostly dark, Mediterranean-looking people, but blue, gray and green eyes often turned up among them. They would sometimes say they were "Portygee," when asked their country of origin.

     When genetic testing became available, it was proven that many had come from Mediterranean stock - which likely included Moors, Berbers and even Serphadic Jews - who had probably fled religious or ethnic persecution and arrived by way of Portugal. But for 150 years, the so-called experts said such a heritage was not possible because people with Portuguese and other Mediterranean names had not been found on the passenger lists of European immigrants.

     It didn't occur to the experts that a people who had already fled one place because of ethnic persecution might have used English-sounding names to blend in when they came here. The scholars preferred to say they were Phoenicians, remnants of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Croatan Indians, shipwrecked Welsh sailors or even a lost tribe of Israel. People without a voice of their own for generations - with names like Collins, Mullins, Chavis, Casteel, Cox and variety of spellings for Goin - they were helpless in stopping misinformation spread by other people.

     Their fair-skinned neighbors had always looked at them with suspicion. They were landowners of prime property they had settled before the Scotch, Irish and French got here. During a Tennessee constitutional convention that took place in the mid-1830s, the delegates seized the opportunity to declare the ethnic group known as Melungeons "free people of color," who could not own property, vote and were forbidden by law to marry white people or testify against them in court.

     Except in a few places like Claiborne County, (TN.) , where they had political power and called themselves "black Dutch" and "black Irish," their land was taken from them and many fled to the hills and settled places like Newman's Ridge, in what is now Hancock County. (TN.). Some believe that county was created especially for them, and it remains among the poorer areas in the state.

     Disenfranchised and denied education - or as victims of ethnic cleansing, as Dr. Brent Kennedy called it in "The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People," a book he coauthored with Robyn Vaughan Kennedy - some Melungeons survived by making whiskey, counterfeiting and even guerrilla warfare against both sides during the Civil War.

     The blue-eyed Kennedy, who had always thought of himself as Scotch-Irish, became interested in Melungeons when he was diagnosed with a disease only found in people of Mediterranean orgin.

     "Sneaky as a Melungeon" and "The Melungeons will get you if yo udo't behave" were common phrases well in the 20th century. It was also believed that two Melungeons would always recognize each other wherever they met in the world and that the offspring of whites and Melungeons would result in either dark or fair children because Melungeon blood wouldn't mix with white.

     My mother was a Goin from Claiborne County, (TN.), but she had never heard the term "Melungeon" until I told her about it. The legends and lies that made the Melungeons appear so mysterious for so long are proof that is possible to almost obliterate the heritage of any minority group. All you need is enough shame and comtempt.

 

Written By: David Hunter, who writes this column for the News Sentinel, is a freelance writer and former Knox County sheriff's deputy. You may write him at P.O. Box 1124, Powell, TN. 37849. His e-mail address is
[email protected].

 

 

 

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