The Melungeon Movement: Silent Lessons of Hidden Lives

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.

We have a challenge before us. We are not just an interesting ethnic conglomeration, but a people recovering their history and facing power. Our suppression came hand in hand with the rise of American patriarchy, the genocide of American Indians, and the institutionalization of slavery, not just in the American South, but throughout the Americas. Race classifications and class stratification enforced by colonial governments and by states divided people, even those who shared the same blood.

The Melungeon movement is a piece of the American mosaic of resistance, like the traditions manifested in fighting strip mining, organizing coal miners, and nurturing a deep and abiding pride of place. It was there in the Civil War, when the mountain areas in the South didn’t follow behind the plantation slaveholders. I am profoundly proud to have grown up in the mountains of Kentucky. I stand in awe of the sacrifices my ancestors made to simply live and raise their families. Before I knew I was anything else, I knew I was Appalachian.

As a child during the War on Poverty, I was fed on the one hand the stereotype of the ignorant Beverly Hillbillies bumpkins while also being told by well-meaning liberals that my culture had no value except as a novelty. I have watched those stereotypes be used to justify the unfettered exploitation of this region; Appalachia is still one of America’s national sacrifice zones, a place to rip apart the land, dump industrial waste, and poison the water. We are seen as a throwaway people from a throwaway place–the end result of centuries of racism and classism directed at people who were never quite white or rich enough to take power.

We are now at an exciting point in time, where yesterday and today merge to reveal all the possibility tomorrow holds. As we discover the silent lessons of hidden lives, it is critical that we commit ourselves to making sure those lessons are never forgotten. Without our past, without our identity, and without unity with those who share a common struggle, we are lost. The Melungeon movement is newly born. It’s up to us to see that it gets raised right.

From The Appalachian Quarterly (June 1998). Subscriptions: $10/yr. (4 issues) from the Wise County Historical Society, Box 368, Wise, VA 24293.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.