The Melungeons (1600s- ) are a mixed-race people in America who live in the Appalachian mountains where Tennessee meets Virginia meets Kentucky. There are about 50,000 of them. They look mainly white nowadays but in the 1690s French traders said they looked like Moors (the Berbers of north-west Africa). They looked neither white nor black nor American Indian.
The Melungeons said they were Portuguese, that they had been living in those mountains since before the white man came. This has led some to suppose that they came from Portuguese shipwrecks who mixed with American Indians. Some have even said they came from Carthaginian shipwrecks thousands of years ago.
It all sounds cool and gives them an air of mystery, but the truth about them was there all along in court and census records – and, of course, in their DNA.
They are part Portuguese and Spanish, but that comes not from shipwrecks but those who worked in the slave trade in the 1600s. They are part American Indian, Cherokee mainly, but not all that much and mostly from the 1800s.
The Melungeons mainly come from free black men in Virginia who took white wives in the 1600s. In the late 1600s and early 1700s they moved westward into the mountains – just about the time the colour line was hardening in Virginia.
Multiracial communities: Even as racism deepened in mainstream American society there were at the edges people like the Melungeons in Tennessee, the Creoles of New Orleans, the Seminoles in Florida and the Brass Ankles in South Carolina, where the races mixed more freely and were not so unequal. The level of segregation seen in America even today in our supposedly enlightened times is not “natural” but a creation of white racism.
The white club: In the 1800s as whites moved into the region, they did not quite know what to make of the Melungeons. They were suspected of being part black but because they acted as if they were white – they owned property (even slaves), voted, served in the militia, went to white churches, were culturally white and denied any possible blackness – they were regarded as pretty much white or something close to it. “Portuguese” was just about right for the Anglo colour scale of the day.
Not that they did not experience prejudice – the name “Melungeon” itself was a put-down till the 1960s – but it was nothing like what blacks experienced, who were denied even basic human rights.
On census records the Melungeons first appear mainly as mulattoes or free people of colour. As the 1800s wore on they were increasingly counted as white – in part because they were becoming physically whiter from marrying white. “Mulatto” back then, by the way, did not necessarily mean half-white and half-black, like it does now, but anyone who was mixed-race, even those who were not part black.
Common Melungeon family names: Bunch, Collins, Goins, Gibson, Minor, Williams, Breedlove, Mullins, Denham, Bowling, Moore, Shumake, Bolton, Perkins, Morning, Menley, Hopkins, Mallet.