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Melungeon Mystery Solved? Or Opened to Further Exploration?

Wayne Winkler:

Wayne Winkler: "There are still a great many possibilities open for exploration."

Twenty years ago, this magazine introduced the work of Brent Kennedy on his heritage as a Melungeon. The specifics of that research and a recent DNA study do several things, not the least of which is renewing and deepening interest in who we are and where we came from.

Everybody loves a mystery. And even more so when it involves real people, and it apparently gets solved.

That was a large measure of the huge and positive reaction this publication received upon publishing Brent Kennedy's 1992 "The Melungeon Mystery Solved: Unraveling a Family's Heritage." The piece, spawned by a year-earlier article on the subject by Joan Vannorsdall, not only ostensibly resolved Kennedy’s lifelong puzzle about his heritage, but also launched a new career for him, as perhaps the nation's leading expert on the Melungeons – described by Vannorsdall in her ‘91 piece as “not black nor Indian nor caucasian . . .  and living high atop Newman’s Ridge, running 25 miles from Hancock County, Tenn., up into Virginia’s Lee and Scott counties.”

Multiple books and articles followed for Kennedy; others celebrated their heritage, and began to gather to do so and to do further research on the people Kennedy traced back to 710 A.D, and the “Moors,” as these Arab conquerers were called by their Spanish subjects.

Kennedy’s detailed presentation – carrying through the Spanish reconquering the Arabs in 1200, the blending of the cultures, the Spanish Inquistion beginning in 1502 and the arrival on the South Carolina Coast, perhaps in the 1580s, of descendants of the Moors (now called Moriscos) – was greeted with general enthusiasm and excitement, both from our general readership and from many people who felt that they too now had a real and sudden understanding of their heritage – as Kennedy characterized it, “descendants of the Phoenicans and the Carthaginians, the conquerers of Spain and Portugal, the builders of Casablanca, Marrakech and Tangier.”

Jump ahead 20 years to the appearance, this June, of an Associated Press story about a DNA study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Genetic Genealogy – a study which found that the people referred to as Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European heritage. One theory: The various Melungeon lines sprang from unions of black and white indentured servants, in the mid-1600s’ pre-slavery days in Virginia.

The study was limited in geography to the core of “Melungeon territory” – the area in and around northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, and examined only unbroken lines dating back to the 1830s.

Reaction among people who have identified themselves as Melungeon ranged from  surprise and dismay to perspectives along the lines of “all of us are multiracial; let’s go have lunch.”

Jump back 20 years again for a moment, to a letter to this magazine dated July 15, 1992, from Roger L. Burkhart of Gaithersburg, Md.

Burkhart, apparently a man of patience, has recently provided a copy of that letter (which we did not run in ‘92), along with a copy of the AP story on the study and a note including acid phrasing along the lines of “now modern science has left Mr. Kennedy, and you, no place to hide.”


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