|A few weeks ago, my mother was visiting our home to meet her new grandson. We talked about my late father’s Melungeon family, and my mother mentioned one uncle whom she was pretty certain would never have acknowledged his Melungeon heritage. I went to a bookcase and pulled out a book — Jean Patterson Bible’s Melungeons Yesterday and Today — and showed the title page to my Mom. The uncle in question had signed the book when he gave it to me nearly thirty years ago. It was his way of acknowledging our family heritage. It was also a testament to the impact this slim volume had on our people.
Melungeons Yesterday and Today was published by its author, Jean Patterson Bible, in 1975. Thirty years later, it remains a landmark work. It has served as the foundation for Melungeon researchers ever since it first appeared.
Brent Kennedy, author of The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People, says, “Jean Patterson Bible performed a great service in trying to instill pride among Melungeon descendants, as well as preserving as much of their culture as she possibly could. She provided a strong foundation for later researchers, all without the benefit of electronic research tools exemplified by the Internet, photocopiers, and so on. She is truly an icon in Melungeon research.”
Ms. Bible was a native of Hamblen County, Tennessee. She had attended school with some Melungeon children, and later, as a teacher, taught Melungeon students. She later moved to neighboring Jefferson County, where she also knew a few Melungeons. In Jefferson County, Ms. Bible taught history, modern language, and English. She was a prolific history, travel, and feature writer whose articles appeared The New York Times, Baltimore Sun,Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine, The American Home, Historical Review and Antique Digest, The Southern Observer, and elsewhere. She wrote a weekly column for the Jefferson City, Tennessee, Standard Banner, and served for 30 years as Jefferson County historian. (In 1991, she published a history of her home county, Bent Twigs in Jefferson County.)
A few of her articles and columns were based on folklore about the mysterious Melungeons, a population most often associated with nearby Hancock County. But her interest increased in the late 1960s when Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City began working with the Hancock County Drama Association to produce an outdoor drama about the Melungeons. As she writes, “…I discovered that there was a great deal more to the story than these apparently ‘mysterious’ people than just a romantic legend.”
As she began serious research on the Melungeons, she discovered the work of researchers Edward Price, Calvin Beale, and Henry Price. She also talked with some of the older people in Hancock County, Tennessee. In this endeavor, Ms. Bible was aided by her friend Miss Martha Collins, president of the Citizen’s Bank in Sneedville, the Hancock County seat, and a descendent of some of the original Melungeon families in the county.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about her research. “From the beginning, I have run into skepticism and even tight-lipped disapproval from a few (an attitude of ‘Why do you want to rake all that up? Why can’t you leave the Melungeons alone?’) A number of my query letters asking about Melungeons have been conspicuously ignored and unanswered. On more than one occasion, I have been rudely told to ‘mind my own business” or words to that effect. Incidentally, none of the people involved in these unpleasantnesses were Melungeons.”
Hancock County residents, whether Melungeon or not, had felt misused by writers in the past. Will Allen Dromgoole’s articles in the Nashville American (1890) and the nationally-distributed magazine The Arena (1891) portrayed the Melungeons in a very negative light. She described the Melungeons as “…exceedingly lazy. They live in hovels to filthy for any human being.” Other descriptions included, “They all drink, men, women, and children, and they are all distillers…,” “They are a great nuisance to the people of the county seat…,” “They are exceedingly shiftless, and in most cases filthy.,” “They are rouges, natural, born ‘rogues,’ close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful, cowardly, and to use their own word, ‘sneaky,’” “They are a blot upon our state.”
More recently, William Worden’s 1947 article in the Saturday Evening Post, “Sons of the Legend,” while less overtly racist and contemptuous than Dromgoole’s work, brought unwelcome national attention to the Melungeons and the phenomenon of “tri-racial isolates” (a phrase coined by researcher Calvin Beale). Nearly all of these groups had suffered social and legal discrimination to some degree or another, and whatever tenuous status these groups had managed to attain in their communities was sometimes jeopardized by publicity. After Worden’s article appeared, many non-Melungeons from Hancock County felt the piece reflected badly on everyone the county, as if they all might be “tainted” by this mysterious heritage. One young woman even dropped out of college when her classmates discovered she was from Hancock County, where ”those”people came from.
Despite some initial resistance, Ms. Bible found people in Hancock County and elsewhere who were happy to cooperate, who felt it was important that the Melungeon story be documented before it was too late. Already, outmigration from rural areas and intermarriage with “outsiders” was taking a toll on the various tri-racial communities across the eastern United States. Throughout Melungeons Yesterday and Today, Ms. Bible frequently remarks that the Melungeons are fast disappearing as a distinct people, and that soon, only an occasional dark-skinned descendent will appear to remind us of who the Melungeons once were. Thus, her work was motivated by a sense of urgency: the older people who remembered the bits and pieces of our scanty history would soon be gone, and their memories with them.
One of Ms. Bible’s first discoveries is that the Melungeons were not limited to one small geographical area in east Tennessee and southwest Virginia. She found Melungeon surnames scattered all along the migration routes in Virginia and North Carolina, and researched Melungeon communities in southeastern Tennessee, Kentucky, and as far north as Ohio. She found more recent Melungeon “settlements” – communities of Melungeons who had moved in the 20th century to places like Baltimore or industrial cities in the Midwest.
Ms. Bible was guided in large part by the work of her friend Bonnie Ball, who had known Melungeons in southwest Virginia all her life, and had written about them since the 1940s. She also studied the most recent research by Edward Price, Brewton Berry, Calvin Beale, Henry Price, William Pollitzer, and others. She befriended Bill Grohse, a “transplanted Yankee” who compiled genealogical histories of the early families on Newman’s Ridge and Vardy Valley. Most importantly, she began methodically searching and compiling all the available historical records on the Melungeons.
As she writes, “Busy university professors took time to write thoughtful, detailed answers to my questions on history, genetics and anthropology. County historians have dug up facts about Melungeons in their counties. Faded newspaper clippings from historical collections, articles in professional journals, unpublished mimeographed writings, microfilms of long-ago censuses whose original print had sometimes faded almost beyond recognition, valuable old public records such as the Hawkins CountyWill Book I and the early Tennessee Supreme Court Reports whose yellowed pages fairly crackled with age, family letters, graduate theses, a doctoral dissertation, numerous bits of correspondence and clippings from kind people who were willing to share their knowledge with me – all played a part.”
Ms. Bible recounted the varied legends and theories of the Melungeons’ origin, and presented the major theses chapter-by-chapter. As she writes, “If some of the chapters sound like research on a thesis or dissertation while others seem more like feature articles in a popular magazine or newspaper, that is the way the Melungeon story reads to me. It is a ‘mixed bag,” ranging from hard fact to what is almost fiction.”
“Mixed bag” or not, Melungeons Yesterday and Today was the first work to pull all these elements together and provide a baseline of knowledge about the Melungeons, a foundation for all who would later study our people. When I began the research that eventually resulted in my own book, Walking Toward the Sunset, the bibliography from Melungeons Yesterday and Todaywas my primary research tool. Like most researchers, I made the trips to the library and found the articles in journals and on microfilms — not because I mistrusted her quotes, but because historical researchers love to find the original items whenever possible. Thanks to Jean Patterson Bible’s work, though, I knew what to look for – she’d already found the most relevant items and laid the foundation for future researchers.
It is amazing to me to realize that Ms. Bible did not have resources such as the Internet, copiers, fax machines, scanners, and other tools we take for granted today. Many of the articles first unearthed by Ms. Bible are today available online – indeed, many are available on this very website. But it was Jean Patterson Bible who compiled this huge body of information that gave the rest of us a head start on our research.
Lowell Kirk writes in the Tellico Mountain Press, “Jean Patterson Bible, in a book published in 1975, The Melungeons Yesterday and Today [sic], explored the history of the Melungeons and discovered nothing certain about the many confusing legends regarding Melungeon origins, except that the Melungeons do exist!… Although her book provides worthwhile information about the Melungeons, Jean Bible was not a trained nor scholarly historian.”
Ms. Bible did not set out to solve the mystery, but simply to compile what information was available as accurately and completely as possible. Melungeons Yesterday and Today, by Ms. Bible’s own admission, is scholarly in some chapters and less so in others. While Ms. Bible may not be a “trained” historian in Mr. Kirk’s view, her background as an educator served her well in her research, and she succeeded in producing a comprehensive work in which she – and the Melungeons – can take pride.
This is not to say that subsequent researchers have agreed with all of her conclusions. Much has been learned since 1975. Ms. Bible relates the tale that John Sevier discovered the Melungeons were living on Newman’s Ridge at about the time of the Revolution; it appears now that the first Melungeons arrived in that area about a quarter century later than that, and that the Sevier story is probably apocryphal.
Mike Nassau writes, “[Bible] may be faulted for trying to minimize the black element in the Melungeon background, taking the Welsh and Cherokee legends too seriously, and for making the story too pretty and romantic, but as a friend of the Melungeons trying to help them be accepted by bigoted white neighbors, this is more than forgivable.”
Whatever minor shortcomings might be found in Melungeons Yesterday and Today, it is clear that this book was written just in the nick of time, while she – and we — could still benefit from the memories of people like Miss Martha Collins and others who passed on factual information as well as many of the old stories and legends. And it was researched and written at a time when the Melungeons were beginning to take pride in their heritage, and were more willing to share information and accept the knowledge of their ancestry. It is fair to say that such a book could not have been written ten years earlier – or ten years later. Thirty years after its publication, Melungeons Yesterday and Today still stands as a landmark for our people – a work that not only documented our history, but helped make it as well.