Dr. Brent Kennedy was a force—an outgoing and energetic person–who grew up in the small mountain town of Wise, Virginia. He attended Clinch Valley College and the University of Tennessee and gained a Ph. D. in Mass Communications. He worked in health care, non-profit fundraising and other fields, but it is through his Melungeon research that he became known to the world. His book, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People, authored with his spouse Robyn and first published in 1996, made Brent the prime mover behind the recent revival of Melungeon identity. It all began when Brent’s research revealed that his family was Melungeon. His Melungeon Research Committee and the book spurred wide interest and was catalyst for much more.
Out of this growing interest in Melungeons came meetings known from the beginning as “unions.” Brent and organizers of the First Union expected perhaps 50 attendees when they met in July 1997 at Clinch Valley College (now the University of Virginia’s College at Wise). Surprising to everyone, the meeting in the picnic area turned into a three-day conference with close to 600 people attending! The unions continued under the leadership of Brent and others and continues today—the next meeting the 25th Melungeon Union, is planned for 2021. Thanks to Brent Kennedy and those early organizers, Melungeons gained a voice.
The word Melungeon was no longer an epithet but a badge of honor. The story spread in ripples across the Internet and helped reveal the real melting-pot that is America. On December 17, 2005 Brent suffered a devastating stroke. The doctors didn’t think he would survive, but Robyn knew his determination and provided loving care for him over the years. Brent, voiceless and confined to a scooter, was as aware as ever, continuing to communicate by various devices and by computer. With Robyn’s assistance, he attended unions when he could, and many enjoyed being with him at the 22nd Union at Big Stone Gap in 2018 where he was awarded a plaque for his foundational role in Melungeon history and research and the Melungeon Heritage Association.
Brent would tell you himself that he never claimed to be a historian, but, we know now that much of what he wrote was correct. Most importantly, he wrote from the heart and with courage, and he lived with courage. People may remember his charisma, his energy, his intuition, his generosity, and his dedication to Melungeon identity, but, for many, it was his courage that stands out—his courage to explore Melungeon identity and his courage to survive.
His obituary says it best: “The world indeed has lost a beautiful soul. But Brent has fulfilled his commitment to leave this world in a better place than the way he found it. His legacy will certainly live on through all those he has touched. ” Due to the ongoing pandemic, a Celebration of Life Memorial Service will be scheduled at a later date. For the full obituary and arrangements go to the link below.