We, the Melungeons
Susan Taylor, her flight on hold, seated herself on a bench at Atlanta International Airport. Hundreds of people also grounded were milling about.
“Never knowed a plane couldn’t lift off in hot weather,” said the white-haired man in a jeans-suit seated down the bench a way.
Susan smiled restrainedly.
“Temperature’s a hundred and five out there, they say. I stepped outside a while ago, sweated like a whore in church. My name’s Harold. I’m going to visit my son in Pittsburgh.”
Harold’s stab at familiarity reminded her of similar efforts at the thirtieth reunion of her 1967 high school class in Bristol, Tennessee, earlier that week.
She rose from her seat and resumed walking.
Following the reunion, she’d rented a car and driven down to Atlanta for a second nostalgic get-together—with her college roomie Tina Lockwood. About all Tina and she had in common these days were reminiscences of college days, and those were pretty well exhausted the evening Susan arrived. Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? She wasn’t sure there was an alternative.
Waiting to have her hair done in Syracuse before leaving for the South, she’d happened on a magazine article about the American passion for reunions that generated “together atmospheres.” For people related technically in some way, but separated as Americans commonly were by mobility, economic status, education—or whatever—reunions stirred social instincts at once magnetic and likely to disappoint.
Supposedly every cell in the human body was replaced by others in the course of a decade. Her class reunion made that easy to believe. After thirty years, altered faces, voices, and figures had rendered many of her classmates unrecognizable. The Elvis-resembling quarterback of the football team was palsied; the nubile blond homecoming queen looked like a lineman; the ugly duckling teenage girl had become a middle-aged swan. There had been intimations of psychological transformations as radical as the physical, but to explore those at a two-day gathering resembling an extended cocktail party would have been impossible.
Susan felt she’d had enough “together atmosphere” to last a lifetime.
News spread at the airport that the hazard of hot, dry air preventing airliner takeoffs was about to be replaced by another: a storm with tornadic potential bearing down on the region. She was likely to be marooned at the airport indefinitely.
She paid four dollars for a bag of corn chips and three for a bottle of water, and her thoughts turned to entertainment. She regretted having left books in her now-inaccessible luggage.
She was in a Southern-flavored gift-and-book shop perusing titles when one caught her eye: The Melungeons Reconsidered. “Melungeon” was a term out of her Tennessee youth, a synonym for “boogeyman.” (“If you don’t behave,” mothers would say to their kids, “the Melungeons gonna get you!”) The thrust of this admonition had been clear enough, although it wasn’t until Susan was in high school that she discovered Melungeons were a reclusive dark-skinned people residing up in the Appalachian Mountains not far from her hometown Bristol. An English teacher had assigned a folktale purporting to explain Melungeon origins: Satan, weary of his shrewish wife, abandoned Hell and went abroad looking for new digs. Arrived in the high-ridge Appalachians where nothing much grew but briars and scrub trees, he felt right at home. He settled there, took an Indian wife, and produced a large brood of dark, devilish offspring given to looting, killing, and burning—the original Melungeons.
Susan started at the author’s name on the book cover, Tom Collins. She flipped to the back flyleaf for the author's headshot and bio. Never mind the receding hairline and horn-rimmed glasses, this was undoubtedly the Tom Collins one year ahead of her in high school in Bristol, her first boyfriend. According to the bio, he was now a professor of folklore at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
She purchased the book, published recently by a Southern academic press, and found a seat with decent light to begin reading. The Melungeons Reconsidered was an overview of research on these dusky mountain people that had been inspired by Kingsport, Tennessee, native Brent Kennedy’s 1994 The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People. Questions about Kennedy’s own ancestry had inspired his interest in the Melungeons. His elders had led him to believe his ancestry was Celtic, “black Irish,” and his straight black hair and blue eyes might have testified to such origins. But the black Irish had milk-white skin. His was tawny, and why did his brother look like Saddam Hussein?
Susan looked up from the page. She had an uncle who looked Middle Eastern.
Kennedy had discovered that his physical traits resembled closely those of many Appalachian Melungeons and Louisiana Creoles who had sub-Saharan African and Indian elements in their DNA. He knew that his American ancestors had moved about with inexplicable frequency in the mountainous regions of Western Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and there were vague stories about land they’d owned being confiscated. Melungeons in the nineteenth century were not permitted to own property.
Kennedy’s speculations about his racial background had interested Tom Collins, who had similar physical characteristics. He, too, had been led to believe his heritage was Scotch-Irish.
Susan shared the two authors’ black hair, light brown skin, and blue eyes, and she, too, had been led to believe her origins were in the British Isles. Tom's list of common Melungeon surnames included not only Collins but Gibson—her maiden name.
She was in Atlanta. Tom, who taught there, presumably lived there. She reached into her purse for her cellphone and, in a few minutes, was talking to Tom in his office at Georgia State, describing her situation at the airport, the discovery of his book, and the curiosity it aroused concerning her own ancestry. “Do you remember how when we dated in high school, we were told we looked like kin?”
“I remembered it as I was doing my research,” Tom said, “and we could be distant cousins if both of us had Melungeon ancestors. Those families in the mountains intermarried a lot.”
“You think your ancestry was Melungeon?”
“I do increasingly, although my family’s genealogy is obscure.”
“Melungeons who escaped into civilization would have wanted to forget their past because they had a reputation for being tricky, if not out-and-out criminal. They were as distrusted as black people, and of course, many of them had black blood and looked the part. They were outcasts, non-persons. They couldn’t own property and had no legal rights.”
“How would they have managed to escape the mountains?”
“Not all Melungeons looked the part.”
“Your ancestors and mine didn’t.”
"That would be a good guess...The weather has you trapped at the airport, you say?”
“Forever, I think.”
“When you called, I was just about to leave my office. It would be great to see you again. I could be down there in a half-hour.”
“That would be wonderful,” Susan said, although her recent experience of old acquaintance suggested it might not be.
Tom managed to locate her in the crowd. There were smiles of recognition, quick appraisals of each other’s physical appearance, a light embrace. He was chunkier than the last time they embraced.
Tom waved an inclusive hand over the mass of people shuffling about aimlessly or gazing up slack-jawed at television screens. “They should post that sign Dante had at the gate of Hell: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.’”
“They have little rooms with beds you can rent,” Susan said. “You can nap for forty-two dollars an hour.”
Tom shook his head.
They found seats together.
“Your commenting on my book is stranger than you may imagine,” Tom said. “Starting tomorrow, there's to be a first-ever gathering of Melungeons up at Clinch Valley College up in Wise, Virginia.”
The public address voice interrupted Tom with further information about flight delays.
“Does that include you?”
Susan nodded. “I’ll still be here at midnight.”
“You seem as interested in this Melungeon business as I am.”
“How important is it that you get back to Syracuse right away?”
“As I was driving down here, I had an idea. I’m driving up to Wise tomorrow. Would you want to come along? Jenny and I could put you up here tonight.”
It would be an adventure, and after her disappointing reunions, she was in the mood for one.
As Tom and she drove north on the freeway toward Atlanta, Susan inquired about the origin of the term 'Melungeon.'
“No one really knows,” Tom said. “It may have come from the French mélange—mixtures.”
Tom nodded. “Melungeons are racially complex. There’s likely to be Indian and Negro blood in them. You can often tell that just by looking at them. Kennedy thinks Turks got into the mix, and Turks were mongrels long before they got here.”
“The Portuguese and Spanish in America early on had Turkish slaves. Kennedy has described words in American Indian languages with parallels in Turkish or Arabic. He thinks Turkish slaves may have been the original settlers in the mountains, not the Scotch-Irish.”
“Why is the Melungeon gathering at Wise?”
“It’s near the borders of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky—Melungeon central. Clinch Valley College there has offered its dormitories and cafeterias.”
“What will it be like?”
“Don’t ask me. There’s never been one before.”
Susan sat at the kitchen island of Tom’s spacious Virginia Highlands bungalow, getting acquainted with Tom’s wife Jenny, a slender, tallish, pretty woman with Asian features. She busied about the kitchen, preparing a meal for the three of them.
“Tom and you certainly look as if you came from the same stock,” Jenny observed, “but neither of you look like the Melungeons in Tom’s book. They look like either African-Americans or Indians.”
“When there’s white blood in the mix, Melungeons don’t necessarily look the part,” Tom observed.
“Tom and I were both told back home that we were black Irish,” Susan said.
“Our parents and grandparents may have been liars—or people who had been lied to,” Tom put in, “because Melungeons were regarded as disreputable outcasts.”
“But how did some manage to become reputable?” Susan asked.
“Well, if you claimed to be Irish or Jewish or Spanish and looked the part, you might pass muster. How you were classified depended largely on appearance.”
“You two could pass for Spanish,” Jenny observed.
“What are your origins,” Susan asked Jenny.
“I’m a Polipeno.”
Susan grinned. “A what?”
“Polish father, Filipino mother. My parents met in the Philippines during the Second World War.”
“By the way, Susan,” Tom put in, “some recent DNA studies have suggested that Scots and Irish may have at least as much in common genetically with the Basques in northwestern Spain as with Celts. There’s also some evidence that peoples from the Mediterranean may have migrated to the British Isles long before the Celts arrived in 2500 BC.”
“My head’s spinning,” Susan said.
“There are Melungeons who will tell you tell a story about a mutiny aboard a Portuguese ship that was sailing the Atlantic coast. The sailors strung up the captain and burned the ship. Then they made their way into the mountains. They might have had black or Indian wives there. But the Portuguese were a racial mix already. They had colonies in southwestern Africa.”
Jenny’s obligations in Atlanta prevented her from accompanying Tom and Susan to Wise. “Good thing, too,” she said. “If I turned up at Wise with my slant eyes, things would really get messy.”
“I’ve reserved a room for myself in one of the Clinch dorms,” Tom said. “When we get to Wise, we’ll get one for you, Susan.”
Many miles north of Atlanta, they were still passing recently built strip malls, schools, apartment complexes, suburban "ranchers," and split-level houses—accommodations for the swelling population of the region. Interspersed amid the novelties were abandoned driftwood-gray farmhouses and outbuildings. At a major intersection, opposite a fast-food restaurant in hot red and yellow colors, gray vertical tombstones leaned at angles to the perpendicular amid the weedy growth of a forgotten rural cemetery. A rusty gate hung precariously from one rusty hinge.
A farmer was storing hay in an abandoned one-room red brick schoolhouse with a modest bell tower. Hay bulged from raw window openings.
The terrain rose steadily from the Georgia piedmont. Ninety miles north of Atlanta, they were in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and there were mountains around them the rest of the way to Wise, where a crowd swarmed the parking lots of the Clinch Valley College dormitories.
Tom reached Brent Kennedy by phone and discovered that over six hundred people had registered for the gathering, a surprisingly large number. Finding a room for Susan on campus would be impossible. Tom arranged for her to stay at the Holiday Inn five miles down the road in Norton.
That evening, they sat in the grass on the Clinch State College campus in a crowd eating hot dogs, beans, and potato salad. There were tawny Mediterranean and coal-black African skins, high Indian cheekbones, archaic feather headdresses, Middle Eastern fezzes, Jewish noses. A middle-aged man near where Tom and Susan were sitting looked a lot like Saddam Hussein.
Snippets of conversations overheard:
“Your family buried food to keep it cold? Jeez, I thought we was the only ones did that!”
“My husband’s folks claimed they descended from survivors of the Indian raid on the Roanoke Island colony.”
“We were told we came from the Lost Tribe of Israel. But my sister thought our forefathers were probably Gypsies.”
“Yeah, the lost tribe of India.”
“Mumma said she was always scrubbing her face when she was a little girl, tryin’ to make it come white. Her Daddy said, ‘Honey, you may as well stop. I been trying to do that my whole life, it don't work.'"
“We’d come down out of the mountains when I was a kid. Didn’t do it very often, ‘cause they stared at us funny.”
“My great-aunt Mabel said we were Sioux Indians back when. The last name on Dad’s side was originally ‘Duck.’”
“Was there a Donald Duck?”
“They changed it finally from 'Duck' to 'Hall.' But one of them insisted on calling himself Samuel Adams."
“After the beer?”
“Brent Kennedy thinks a lot of us were Turks.”
“Yeah, we were Turks. At the first Thanksgiving, we had Shish Kebab.”
“The mayor of Wise flew to Turkey awhile back, let the Turks know we came from there.”
“I’ll bet the Turks were excited to hear that.”
“The mayor of some Turkey town sent a message back with the guy from here. Said it was nice that we got back in touch.”
“I thought Turkey Town was in Alabama?”
The scene of the First Union banquet, the next afternoon, was the conference room at the Holiday Inn in Norton where Susan was staying.
Television cameras and reporters crowded the hallway outside the banquet room, and there were vendors hawking FIRST UNION t-shirts and “Melungeon and Proud” buttons.
A cinnamon-skinned vendor with straight black hair whose nametag identified him as “M. Mehmet Topeck” sat at a card table beneath a sign, EXPLORE YOUR TURKISH ORIGINS, handing out postcards adorned with colorful Turkish scenes advertising upcoming tours of Anatolia.
Following the banquet meal served buffet-style, the mayor of Wise, who’d gone to Turkey, described a documentary film in production at Istanbul by an American crew, to be titled “The Melungeons: a Forgotten People.”
Historian Eloy Gallegos spoke of his recent research concerning soldiers from northern Spain who’d constructed forts in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee early on.
Brent Kennedy remarked in his keynote address that what had become abundantly clear, amid all the uncertainty about the Melungeons' origins, was that the conventional all-white version of the first settlement of the Appalachians was fiction. The original Americans there had very likely been Spanish, Portuguese, African, and Turkish, in addition to Native American.
“The truth the Melungeon story tells is that we Americans, whatever our origins, are New World brothers and sisters. Racial prejudice and injustice can have no place here. We may never know for sure what our racial background may have been, and if it’s proven eventually that we have no genetic relation to the Turks, the Portuguese, or whomever—so what? Let’s all just pretend we're related and see what happens!”
Susan reflected that to have discovered her ancestry might be Melungeon (whatever that might mean) was interesting but seemed about as fragile a basis for brotherhood and sisterhood as graduating from the same public high school the same year. She’d thought after leaving Tina Lockwood’s house in Atlanta that she'd had enough "together atmosphere" to last a lifetime, but here she was immersed in a dense cloud of it, American as apple pie.
About the Author
James Gallant was the winner of 2019 Schaffner Press Prize for music-in-literature for his story collection, La Leona, and Other Guitar Stories, published in 2020. Fortnightly Review (UK) published in 2018 in its Odd Volumes series a collection of his essays and short fiction, Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations.