“Negro Speaking!” 1840 article from The Whig, Jonesboro, Tennessee

1840 Whig Article

Negro Speaking!

published in the Whig, Jonesboro, Tennessee, 7 October 1840

We have just learned, upon undoubtable authority, that Gen. Combs, in his attempt to address the citizens of Sullivan County, on yesterday, was insulted, contradicted repeatedly, limited to one hour and a half, and most shamefully treated, and withall an effort was made, to get an impudent Malungeon from Washington City, a scoundrel who is half Negro and half Indian, and who has actually been speaking in Sullivan, in reply to Combs! Gen. Combs, however, declined the honor of contending with Negroes and Indians _ said he had fought against the latter, but never met them in debate! This is the party, reader, who are opposed to the gag-law, and to abolition!

Bigotry and democracy in Sullivan County, well knowing that their days on earth are numbered, are rolling together their clouds of blackness and darkness, in the person of a free negroe, with the forlorn hope of obscuring the light that is beaming in glory, and a gladness, upon this country, through the able and eloquent speeches of Whig orators.

David Shaver replied to Gen. Combs, we are informed. This is the same Davy, Mr. Netherland gave an account of, some time since, and who, Col. James gave us the history of, in an address, at our late convention. When Davy had finished, the big Democratic Negro came forward, and entertained the brethren. These two last speakers were an entertaining pair!

from Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia by Wayne Winkler (2004, Mercer University Press)

The 1840 article was printed in the Jonesborough Whig, a political newspaper edited by William Gannaway “Parson” Brownlow, later to become the controversial Reconstruction governor of Tennessee. Over the next two weeks, Brownlow’s Whig made several references to the “Malungeon” which made clear that Brownlow considered a Melungeon to be “a scoundrel who is half Negro and half Indian.” References to “the big Democratic Negro” were meant to associate the Democrats with the concept of racial equality, a notion repugnant of southern Whigs (and to southern Democrats as well).

The origin of this “impudent Malungeon” is given as “Washington City.” This raises some questions. Jonesborough, where the newspaper was published, is the seat of Washington County, Tennessee, and there is a Washington County nearby in Virginia. However, there is no city or town named “Washington” anywhere near Jonesborough. In the 1840s, “Washington City” often referred to Washington, D. C. If the “scoundrel who is half Negro and half Indian” came from the District of Columbia, the term “Melungeon” obviously had a far broader meaning and more widespread usage than anyone has suggested to date. If the term was being used in the nation’s capital, one could reasonably assume the term would exist in numerous other records. It does not; as of this writing, the Jonesborough articles of 1840 are only the second known written record of the word, the first being the Stony Creek church minutes of 1813. The author may have been applying a local term to an outsider, someone who would not have been called a “Malungeon” anywhere else?. The more likely explanation, however, is that the reference to “Washington City” is a mistake or a typographical error, and the origin of the “impudent Malungeon” was Washington County.

Tennessee politicians, particularly in the post-Civil War era, would use the term “Melungeon” to describe opposing politicians, particularly Republicans from the eastern third of the state. During the post-war Reconstruction era, bitter epithets flew freely between Democrats and Republicans. This particular epithet, however, seems never to have lost its suggestion of non-white ancestry. When Nashville writer Will Allen Dromgoole asked two Tennessee legislators of the 1890’s to define “Malungeons,” the answers were “a dirty Indian sneak” and “a Portuguese nigger.”