Forging a Common Present From Mysteries of Long-Hidden Past


He always believed them. No reason not to. Kennedy was his name, and of course Scotch Irish was his background--a self-reliant lineage straight back to the cool hills of western Europe, people who took to Appalachia's ridges with vigor and verve. Intrepid mountaineers.

But this illness, this thing that threatened to consume his body and hijack his control--well, it just didn't fit. Not at all. An odd malady common in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern people? How did it invade him, of all people?

No time to worry about it, though. Other things were more pressing: The unbearable agony in his bones. The lungs that couldn't grab enough air. The grotesquely swollen legs. The panic. The wife and young son.

Explanations be damned. He resigned himself to those months of injections and treatment and pain. He thought he might die.

Then he got better, and curiosity begat obsession. Middle Eastern, Mediterranean--did that have some connection to the unexplained olive skin, swarthy features and bright blue eyes that his family, and others up on Coeburn and Stone mountains, had exhibited for generations? To the fact that his brother, improbably, was a dead ringer for Saddam Hussein?

Maybe, he mused, it was part of a bigger story. He began asking questions. About his parents' parents' parents. About those shy, raggedy folks with shining eyes who'd come out of the woods now and then. About an odd word he'd always heard. About history. About race. About community.

The questions brought him here, to a mountainside graveyard filled with souls who spent their lives ashamed of who they were. Brent Kennedy, whose own eyes shine, wanted--needed--answers.

It was the beginning of his new calling--and of something far more.


One word. One lousy word. An obscure word. A powerful word, uttered over the centuries in confusion, derision and, most recently, pride.


One word. And behind it, a tapestry of truth and possibility, of people wanting to be what they're not and not wanting to be what they are. Of understanding your life by owning a chunk of your past. Basic things. Complicated things.

For 300 years, racial, social and cultural stigmas made second-class citizens of anyone in this region who was branded with that one word. Scattered in pockets through the mountains, they sat at the bottom of the white trash pile--discriminated against, denounced, denied voting rights, branded "colored" by the government in the days when that was a fighting word.

But why? What was--what is--a Melungeon?

The short answer: Nobody's quite sure.

This much is known about the people called Melungeons (rhymes with dungeons): Today many are concentrated in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky and eastern Tennessee. They have been derided for where they live (the hills), how they live (often poorly), how they are named (Mullins, Collins, Goins, Roberson, etc.).

And then there's this. Unseemly, politically incorrect even, but here it is: Though they fit our nation's modern definition of white, many with Melungeon ancestry just plain look different from the majority of white folks around here. Long, regal noses, dusky faces, jet-black hair, shining blue eyes. One glimpse can evoke foreign lands, strange tongues.

Were they originally Spanish? There has long been talk--some of it bolstered by fact, some rampant speculation--that survivors of Santa Elena, a Spanish colony on the South Carolina coast in the 1500s, forged inland and settled in the hills.

Were they Turkish or North African? Both the Turkish "melun can" and the Arabic "malun jinn" mean "outcast" or "accursed soul." Were Turkish slaves from Spanish ships abandoned on the coast to work their way to Appalachia?

Or were they Portuguese? Early Melungeons, discovered by Scotch Irish settlers in the mid-18th century, reportedly spoke broken Elizabethan English and described themselves simply as "Portyghee."

The prevailing academic theory offers an equally slapdash, though less romantic, origin. It suggests Melungeons are descended from "tri-racial isolates," a mixture of whites, blacks and American Indians who historians say interbred along Appalachia's ridges during the 18th century.

The tantalizing speculations go on, culled from old documents and stories passed down: Spaniards living in a mining community in the southern Alleghenies in 1654. Hints of Catholicism, Judaism, even Islam. Refugees from Sir Francis Drake's ship. Moors and the Spanish Inquisition. American Indian words that inexplicably mirror Turkic words.

So many clues. So little incontrovertible evidence. Pieces, interlocking, but no puzzle picture yet.

Today, myth and fact are often inseparable. Abraham Lincoln, it's suggested, was a Melungeon through his mother, Nancy Hanks. And Elvis Presley--look at those dark poor-boy features. Classic Melungeon, some like to speculate.

In Wise County, along the cloud-shrouded ridges of Stone and Coeburn mountains in southwestern Virginia, such notions have always been whispered or left unsaid. After all, in the pre-civil rights era, you didn't want to be related to Melungeons, to the "Black Nashes" or "Black Ira" or "Spotted Dave." You didn't want to be pushed around in school by townies; just living on the mountain was stigma enough without being tagged a Melungeon.

And you certainly didn't want a surname that caught W.A. Plecker's attention. Two generations ago, the Virginia state official compiled a list of common names that he deemed Melungeon (like Mullins, or Collins), then instructed local officials to sniff out these "mixed families" and prevent them from claiming American Indian ancestry as an "aid to intermarriage into the white race."

You didn't even want to poke into your own background; who knew what might turn up? Connie Clark, who teaches in the Wise schools and counts herself as a Melungeon, remembers in eighth grade being assigned to trace her family history--but to stop with her grandparents.

"I said, 'What if we can go back farther?' " she recalls. "And they said, 'No--some people might not like what they find.' "

Now here's the odd part: Today, though there remains passionately angry resistance, more and more people who believe they are Melungeon are going back further.

But now they like what they find.


"Want to feel my bump?" Brent Kennedy asks.

It is on the back of his head, and it is, he proposes, classically Central Asian--proof, along with a ridge behind his upper teeth, that such genes reside within his 47-year-old body, that he's not Scotch Irish.

A stretch? Even Kennedy acknowledges that possibility. But it speaks directly to what he's spent the 1990s trying to do: create, uncover, prove--use whatever verb you wish--similarities between people. Find shared history, common ground.

Kennedy's ailments--sarcoidosis and suspected familial Mediterranean fever--halted his life. He gave up a big-time Atlanta PR job and moved back to Wise, his hometown, to become a college administrator. Like many who fall gravely ill, he shuffled priorities.

What emerged from his crucible of pain and curiosity was a deep, abiding desire to learn why his family would never discuss being Melungeon, why his mother's people were called the "Black Nashes," why the M-word still made many of his contemporaries bristle.

So he went onto Stone Mountain and poked. He went onto Coeburn Mountain and pried. He alienated family members with questions; some even destroyed photos to prevent him from getting them. Burn in hell, one cousin told him.

He found kindred spirits like Darlene Wilson, a gregarious doctoral student in history and the main Melungeon voice on the World Wide Web. Like Chester DePratter, an archeologist excavating the Santa Elena ruins who--first tentatively, then enthusiastically--became part of the Melungeon investigation. Like Scott Collins, a Sneedville, Tenn., court official who has spent 25 years walking Newman's Ridge in eastern Tennessee and researching his Melungeon ancestry.

Kennedy kept at it. He networked. He wrote letters; he got letters back--emotional letters, thank-you letters, hate letters, death threats. He helped form a committee (as college administrators do) composed of historians, anthropologists, geneticists, regular folks. A Spanish researcher, a Portuguese researcher, a Turkish researcher.

"Brent is running the whole gamut--from oral history to 'real' history and into the realm of science," DePratter says. "I do find myself having to caution him from time to time, but if he had been totally out there on the fringe, I never would have gotten involved."

Then Kennedy wrote the book. "The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People" resonated in all corners of Melungeondom. It left people on the two mountains aghast; Melungeon simply wasn't a word they discussed. In academia, Kennedy was either welcomed as a provocative kindred spirit or dismissed as a loose cannon who made conclusions, then sought facts.

"It was not written as history," Kennedy insists. "The book is a manifesto."

Not good enough for some. David Henige, an oral history expert at the University of Wisconsin, dismantled Kennedy's book in a recent critique. A believer in the "tri-racial isolate" theory, Henige attributes the Melungeon movement to people feeling inadequate and creating a "mass attitude."

"It's an attempt--an unsuccessful one--to create history. Instead, it's created a myth," Henige says.

"This says something about human nature: It's nice to believe. That's what keeps religion going, isn't it?" he says. "This is like religion--faith with no proof."

Proof or not, the faith is accelerating. This is what it has caused:

The mayor of Cesme, Turkey, and his entourage have visited Wise County, endorsed the curiosity and promised help in exploring links between Melungeons and the possible Turkish "melun can." Even the Turkish World Research Foundation has gotten involved.

This is what it has caused: Last year, a meeting of Melungeons called "First Union" was expected to draw 200, maybe 300 people. Nearly 1,000 showed up, jamming hotels. Second Union is set for July.

This, arguably, is what it has caused: A backlash against racial purity arguments, a grass-roots movement in a nation where almost all of the "natives" aren't natives.

"History has been sacrificed for much worse," says Rodger Lyle Brown, who wrote about southern nativist movements in his book, "Ghost Dancing on the Cracker Circuit."

"It's as if they're saying, 'This is what's inside of me, and what's inside me is all things,' " Brown says. "It's as if the Melungeons contain the world."

And this is what it has caused: Curiosity, anger, understanding. Friendships among people who never knew of each other. Families reunited; other families outraged at the temerity of unearthing something they worked so hard to bury. Neighbors talking to neighbors. Neighbors ignoring neighbors.

Things that happen in a community.

'We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here!'

--The microscopic residents of Whoville in Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who," yelling in unison to persuade the regular-sized universe that their world exists upon a dust speck.

Brent Kennedy's great-grandmother was a strong woman, a woman who could handle most anything. To the day she died in October 1915, Louisa Hall Nash was known on Coeburn Mountain as two things--hospitable and tough. The smattering of houses called Nash Home Place is named for her people. She was, her descendants say, a Melungeon.

Today her great-grandson comes to her grave for contemplation--as he has since he was 4, when his mother first brought him to the monument-dappled hillside. "Even then," he recalls, "there was a sadness."

Now, though Kennedy's shoes crunch through the same graveyard's grass, the ground he treads is different. Those who preceded him may have felt they were islands in an ocean of disdain, but now tens have become hundreds have become thousands--Sextons, Gipsons, Collinses, Robersons, Kennedys, random people who have heard of what's happening. People who want to belong.

Carolyn Adkins, a young mother from Stone Mountain still hesitant about her Melungeon background, is getting involved, with her 13-year-old daughter, Amanda, in Second Union. "To all you people who ever put me down--I'm not as low as you thought I was," she says.

And Connie Clark is teaching a new generation about the Melungeons. She looks at her pale hands and vows her own little push for progress. "When that census comes around the next time," she says, "I'm not going to put down 'white.' I'll put down 'other.' "

Kennedy wants to be buried here, though not just yet. He can imagine nothing more fitting than to come to an end alongside the people he is starting to understand. His people. He's glad he got sick, thankful his wife let him spend their life's savings on an obsession.

History. Race. Community. A nascent extended family in which belief, not genetics, gets you through the front door. Yes, like a religion. And below it all, the pernicious questions that faith always raises: How do you tell a story without all the facts? And, without all the facts, should you ignore the story?

Kennedy didn't. Wilson didn't. Collins didn't. And today, in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky, almost everyone who wants to be a Melungeon can find a reason, and the paucity of hard facts makes it almost impossible to exclude anyone. The pegs whittle themselves to fit the hole.

And why not? You could say this lesson--what Darlene Wilson calls the "incredible mosaic"--is a fitting development for an America mixing like never before. What Brent Kennedy envisions is a new kind of ethnicity--one based not upon race or color or background but upon shared experience and history. Or, his critics would say, upon shoddy methodology and wishful thinking.

"I don't care who we are. I just believe that we need to know who we are," Kennedy says.

"However they did it, they got here. And their genes are here," he says. "So when someone says to me, 'Without doubt you're Scotch Irish,' and I'm sitting here with all these physical traits and all these clues and this illness--well, don't tell me that. Somehow the genes are here."

Maybe the blurriness isn't a shortcoming; perhaps it's exactly the point. Something unusual happened here long ago, but the truth may be eternally elusive. History may have washed it away and, impishly, left behind only the clues for a vast genetic-anthropological Easter egg hunt. It may be that questions, not answers, are what matter most.

And still there are these people. Call them what you will, they exist--abundant pockets of dark features and shining eyes and sad lineages and unanswered questions. And even if they lack a common past, they are forging a common present.

A new race? Perhaps, perhaps not. A new history? Hard to say; many more facts are needed.

But a new community? You'd be hard-pressed to say otherwise. Because, conclude what you will about their origins, today some of them are shouting together. And the shouts are being heard. The Melungeons, whatever, whoever they may be, are here. They are loudly, passionately, indisputably, irreversibly here.

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