The story of the Melungeons is at once a footnote to the history of race in America and a timely parable of it. They bear witness to the horrors and legacy of segregation, but also to the overlooked complexity of the early colonial era. They suggest a once-and-future alternative to the country’s brutally rigid model of race relations, one that, for all the improvements, persists in the often siloed lives of black and white Americans today. Half-real and half-mythical, for generations the Melungeons were avatars for their neighbours’ neuroses; latterly they have morphed into receptacles for their ideals, becoming, in effect, ambassadors for integration where once they were targets of prejudice.
The two big questions about them encapsulate their ambiguous status—on the boundaries of races and territories, and between suffering and hope, imagination and fact. Where did the Melungeons come from? And do they still exist?
Last of the Phoenicians
At a recent gathering of the Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA), in Vardy, a hamlet in the valley, and over in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, family trees and photographs of swarthy ancestors were compared. But the underlying preoccupation was the Melungeons’ origins—a subject comprised more of legend than of evidence. They are said to be the progeny of Phoenicians who fled the Roman sacking of Carthage, or of pre-Columbian Turkish explorers (making them America’s first Muslims). They descend from wayward conquistadors, from a doomed colony established on Roanoke Island by Sir Walter Raleigh, or from Moorish galley slaves abandoned there by Sir Francis Drake. They were sired by shipwrecked pirates or by Madoc, a 12th-century Welsh explorer. They are a lost tribe of Israel.
Native Americans often feature as consorts in these narratives, such as the fable in which Satan briefly cohabits with a Cherokee woman in the mountains of Tennessee. Etymology is as vexed as genealogy. The name Melungeon derives from mélange, an appellation bestowed by early French settlers on the Clinch river. Alternatively, Italian pioneers in Virginia used their word for aubergine to disparage the Melungeons’ skin colour. It comes from melas, Greek for dark or black, from the Turkish expression melun can, meaning “cursed soul”, or from melungo, a West African term for shipmate. Or from an old English word for trickery found in Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”.
One of the most widespread beliefs is that they are offspring of Portuguese mariners who arrived in early colonial times; or, as some 19th-century Melungeons would have put it, on the rare occasions when they spoke for themselves, they were “Portyghee”. A newspaper report of 1848 said the community was established by “a society of Portuguese Adventurers”, and now lived in “a delightful Utopia” of primitive disinhibition. (The Melungeon story has mostly been told in the calumnies and hearsay of outsiders.) A sub-theory sees them as exiled conversos, Iberian Jews who hid their faith to escape the Inquisition before fleeing to the New World.