“American Gypsies’ by Alessandro Ursic (2005 article)

American Gypsies

A journey through the lands of the Melungeons, a community that’s been discriminated against for centuries

by Alessandro Ursic

Note from MHA webmaster: This article appeared in an Italian newspaper and on the website PeaceReporter.net. The original article may be seen at http://www.peacereporter.net/dettaglio_articolo.php?idpa=&idc=44&ida=&idt=&idart=3933
This article is a translation from the original Italian. Whether through misunderstanding or mistakes in translation, the following article contains a few inaccuracies. These will be corrected at the end of the article.

The history of the first American colonials is almost comforting: they were Anglo-Saxons looking for their fortune, and for some escaping persecution in their homeland, and thanks to them the America of today was born. An adventure full of tribulations, but one with a happy ending. The majority of pioneers were white, Christian and northern European. But it’s exactly for this that in the New World old prejudices also found their place. A developing society that through the course of centuries brought together immigrants from every continent, yet those that were different have been systematically marginalised. Segregation of Afro-Caribbean’s is well known. Those that are “different” were not categorised by racial means. It wasn’t obvious like with the others. It didn’t effect the same number of people. But just because of this it was no less cruel. And still today, in an out of the way zone in the Appalachian mountains that stretch between Eastern Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, there are those that can tell the story.

The origins of the name Melungeons.

An etymologically bastardised word, not pure, like the origins of those that it has labelled. It’s the name that baptised a small agricultural community, that no-one -not even themselves- knows where it came from. White but olive skinned, for sure not White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Turkish? Maybe. Descendants of Portuguese or North African sailors? Could be. Europeans mixed with African slaves and Native American tribes? Very probable. In the rigid racial separation between whites and blacks of the Eighteen hundreds, the Melungeons were indecipherable. They were a closed society, still today their descendants all have the same surnames: Collins, Mullins, Gibson, and Goins. They didn’t have the same rights as whites. They didn’t want to be aligned with blacks. Up until the point they became of type of “American gypsy.” Seen as shady, unreliable, and unable to assimilate. “If you’re not good, the Melungeons will come and take you away,” white mothers would say to their naughty children.

Breaking a taboo.

Wayne Winkler

Wayne Winkler, Melungeon from his mother’s side, is a man that for the last ten years has been working to reclaim an identity that has been negated for the last two centuries. Challenging the indifference of the elders that say to the young: “If you had had to suffer the discrimination that we did, you wouldn’t be so proud today.” In 1995 Winkler founded the Melungeon Heritage Association. The same year he organised a meeting of those that had the same origins. “I expected fifty or so people, but six hundred came. The following year, two thousand.” Winkler remembers the first time he heard that terrible word. “I was 12 years old, I was in a shop with my brother and my grandmother, a Melungeon. At a certain point a client called her a ‘black squaw,’ a double insult because to call an Indian woman a squaw is like calling her a prostitute. That evening I asked my father what Melungeon meant, he took me aside and explained. But the discussion was taboo in my family.”

Indifference of a peoples.

Today Winkler’s curiosity is now shared by more than a thousand members of his association. There’s the desire to understand, to dig deep into their past. Anything but easy; for the elderly the word Melungeon remains an insult. They don’t speak willingly. It’s for this reason that journalists, who in the last 10 years have descended on the county of Hancock in Tennessee, fifty thousand inhabitants almost all with Melungeon origins, have got the impression that it’s an un-welcoming and impenetrable place. Knocking at the doors of small spartan houses asking, “Excuse me, but do you happen to be Melungeon?” It’s like going to the house of an elderly Afro-American person in Alabama and asking them, “Do you happen to be black?”

Where they come from.

DruAnna Overbay of the Vardy Community Historical Society

The origins the Melungeons is still unclear. The only sure thing was discovered by Winkler, it was the first documented use of this name in 1813. The term could have six different meanings, none of which are positive. There’s the possibility that it’s derived from the French mélange, mixture. From the Greek melos, black. From the Portuguese melungo, sailor. From the Arabic, melunjinn or the Turkish meluncan, “dammed soul”. Or from the ancient English melengine, malicious. Words all of different origins, each one supports his theory. Winkler has written a book on the topic, he believes that the first Melungeons were Portuguese sailors from the era of the great explorers (and, therefore, also North African, Indian). Another Melungeon author, Brent Kennedy, in his two books on the origins of this community looks towards Anatolia. But he’s talking about late Fifteen hundreds, Sixteen hundreds. Documents don’t exist that would give a precise identification. The only accepted fact is, that from wherever they came, these pioneers settled in the poorest rural zones of the Appalachians –a land only useful for small stock farming and subsistence agriculture, certainly not for plantations- and here they integrated more easily with the other “differents”: the black slaves and the native Americans. A kind of union between the marginalised. It has given birth to a mixture that Winkler and Kennedy call “tri-racial.”

Centuries of hostility.

Brent Kennedy with a photograph of his mother

Discrimination had already started in the Seventeen Hundreds. At the end of the century, in order to find themselves some peace, hundreds of Melungeons went south to the valleys of Tennessee, because at that time the State was one of the few that allowed free men to vote. In reality though once the Melungeons were settled there, their right to vote was taken away. Children couldn’t go to school: they were not allowed to go into white’s schools, and they didn’t want to go to those of the black. There were episodes of intimidation; houses of undesirables were set fire to. But even when there wasn’t violence, discrimination continued. Often the Melungeons weren’t even called Melungeons, but called, disparagingly, as “those people that live in Hancock county.” Living in that zone, even if you were pure white, was already a sign of guilt. Some young people from Hancock, not Melungeons, left school, fed up with having the mickey taken out them because they came from, “that place where those people live.” It was like that in the Nineteen Thirties, then the Presbyterian church founded a school in Hancock county that accepted anyone, also Melungeons who had been refused by all other institutions. In 45 years of work, hundreds of young people were given the opportunity to get an education

The desire for normality.

The emancipation continued into the Nineteen Seventies, when in America the civil rights movement emerged. With the aim of opening up to tourism, (the region was still poor by United States standards), the people of Hancock county decided to prepare a theatrical show about their situation. The show lasted for seven consecutive seasons, grabbing the attention of the surrounding areas and also the big daily newspapers. For the first time, the Melungeons started to talk. Claude Collins, one of the 150 remaining pure Melungeons, remembers that not everyone was in agreement about this public opening up. “During the time of the show it was me that spoke the most to journalists. Many of them didn’t want to collaborate and they looked down on me. I also received a number of threats for doing this.”

New friends.

Claude Collins of the Melungeon Hertiage Association and the Vardy Community Historical Society

In the Seventies the community again became forgotten. But interest was revived in 1994 by a book written by Brent Kennedy, Melungeon on his mother’s side, and his theory on Anatolian origins. Kennedy started his research when he discovered he had sarcoidosis, an illness that strikes, above all, those from the Mediterranean and Middle East. He had a DNA analysis and discovered that 55% of his genetic makeup wasn’t European but Middle Eastern, Greek-Turkish and from Southeast Asia. “Look at the ‘photo of my mother,” he says showing a 30 year old ‘photo. That’s to say particular face: Afro-American shape, oriental eyes and a yellowish complexion. Kennedy’s father was white and Brent isn’t like his mother. “I have much fairer skin –he says- but my brother could easily be Arabic.” Whether the Anatolian theory is right or wrong, Kennedy’s book has revived Melungeon pride. It has brought together apparently distant lands: in the last few years showing an article from a Turkish magazine, Kennedy declares that dozens of young people have become pen-friends with their Turkish contemporaries. University exchange programmes have been initiated between students. The Ambassador from Ankara came to visit last year. The Turkish city of Cesme and that of Wise in Tennessee are twinned: in Cesme there even a ‘Wise Street.’

Excellent relatives.

The desire today of the Melungeons for an identity pushes them into looking for possible famous ancestors. Winkler and Kennedy sustain that it was highly probable that ex president Abraham Lincoln, was Melungeon: that’s to say that from his facial characteristics and the fact that he was born in eastern Kentucky. Also recognised as being from Melungeon origin the actress Ava Gardner, daughter of a poor tobacco farmer from North Carolina. But the most famous Melungeon of all time, whose mother was from eastern Tennessee, could be none other than the King of Rock, Elvis Presley. “There are links,” declares Winkler. Accepting this as fact is almost impossible for him as well: in written documents the word Melungeon doesn’t exist. But his smile says that he would like to believe it to be true.

Corrections from MHA

Many opinions were expressed in the above article. However, there were a few factual errors which we would like to correct.

Wayne Winkler was not the founder of the Melungeon Heritage Association. Many people were involved in the formation of MHA; Winkler says he played “a minor role” in founding the organization, which was chartered in 1998.

The first Melungeon gathering occurred in Wise, Virginia, in July 1997.

Hancock County, Tennessee, has fewer than 5,000 residents, and not all of them are of Melungeon descent.

The first documented use of the term “Melungeon” was located in the minutes of Stony Creek Primitive Baptist Church in 1813. Jack Goins made the discovery.

The outdoor drama “Walk Toward the Sunset” was staged from 1969 to 1976 in Sneedville, Tennessee. However, the play was not produced in 1972 or in 1974 due to financial problems (1972) and the gasoline shortage (1974).