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Forging a Common Present From Mysteries of Long-Hidden Past

Lineage: A quest for ancestral secrets in the Appalachians leads a researcher to the Melungeon people--and to controversy.

June 28, 1998|TED ANTHONY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NASH HOME PLACE, Va. — 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.

Melungeon.

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.

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