The Melungeon Movement: Silent Lessons of Hidden Lives

Restoring pride to a forgotten people


| May-June 1999


Suffering from sarcoidosis and suspected familial Medi-terranean fever several years ago, N. Brent Kennedy searched for answers. How could a man of Scots-Irish heritage contract an odd malady common to Middle Eastern people? In fact, why was his brother a dead ringer for Saddam Hussein? 

Kennedy's genealogical curiosity led to an explosion of interest and a reversal of pride in the long-stigmatized Melungeons, a genetically related Appalachian clan concentrated in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee. In his controversial book, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People (Mercer University Press, 1994), Kennedy suggests that Melungeons are descended from Turkish and other Mediterranean peoples--linguistic connections are evident in surnames and even state names. His remarkable quest, shared via the Internet, has attracted hundreds of fellow seekers; in fact, First Union, a 1997 meeting in Wise, Virginia, planned for 200 people, drew 1,000.

Here is what the search means to one of them, a man who grew up in Leslie County, Kentucky. 

First Union was the key event that coalesced many dialogues, discussions, and information associations into the beginnings of a regional multiethnic movement. What started out for so many of us as a search for our family's history has become a commitment not just to discovering our own origins, but also to building bridges between people who have long been, for the benefit of those in power, divided by artificial barriers. This is not a trendy effort to be “ethnic,” not a faddish association with people of color. Something basic is happening here. We are consciously tackling our responsibility in overcoming racist, classist, and sexist barriers that have, in part, been generated by past government and social policies.

Most of us of Melungeon descent have enjoyed white-skinned privilege, but some Melungeons and other mixed-ethnic people face discrimination. They are our cousins. They are us—as are people who identify themselves as Native American, African American, and Hispanic. As are people in Portugal, Turkey, South America, the Middle East, and on and on.

I have long been concerned with social justice, rooted in part in the treatment of Appalachians at the hands of the rest of the country. I didn't expect, however, that in midlife I would find myself in the middle of a movement to recover my own heritage. But here I am, and I have no doubt that this work is as intensely important as anything I have ever done.