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Monday (Melungeon Woman, Probably, North Carolina).

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America has a funny way of hiding history, and there’s no better example of that than the story of the Melungeons; a forgotten people of Appalachia. 

Appalachia is a geographic region in the eastern United States located in the Appalachian Mountains. The region consists of 13 states stretching from New York to northern Mississippi and is home to more than 26 million Americans. But, when you do your research on the region, Melungeons are barely mentioned, if at all.   

If you have never heard of the Melungeons don’t feel too bad because scholars and historians can’t even agree as to how these people originated, which has left room for claims that are almost impossible to prove. Some have speculated the Melungeons were descendants of Portuguese explorers who shipwrecked at sea, Gypsies, and even pushed ridiculous claims that they could have been one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Most historians have agreed the Melungeons were a mix of European, African and Indigenous ancestry, which suggests that North America was a hotchpotch of people before America was a thing. It also reveals a fascinating intersectionality between Europeans, Africans and Indigenous people that American history never mentioned. 

Regardless of the many claims of genealogy, the Melungeons were a mixed-raced people, who, in early America had to deal with similar racist and discriminatory conditions, both legal and social, that many other people of color had to deal with when this country was being built. 

Often referred to as “tri-racial isolates,” Melungeons first appeared in newspapers and print in the 18th century to describe people of mixed ancestry in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. They were considered “non-white,” which meant it was open season for you to be discriminated against. Newspaper articles and journals that mentioned Melungeons were invariably discriminatory, so much so that the term could have been seen as a racial slur at the time. 

By the 1800’s the European concept of race had conquered the states, which meant if you were a dark-skinned Melungeon you were privy to all the hate that came with the skin tone.

From Melungeon Heritage Association:

In the 1840s, several Melungeons were tried for illegal voting on the grounds that they were not white and therefore ineligible to cast a ballot. However, they were acquitted. In Virginia, Melungeons were classified as “colored” by the Racial Integrity Act, which was in effect from 1924 to 1971. 

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But telling a Melungeon apart from different races or ethnicities was difficult due to their varying appearance. According to the Melungeon Heritage Association, many tri-racial groups have lost their collective identity in the last half-century and have blended into the majority population. 

From Melungeon Heritage Association:

Some groups with a predominantly Indian heritage have organized as tribes, and a few have gained limited government recognition. Others, like the Melungeons, are recognizing and celebrating their unique multi-ethnic heritage.

Now, there are Americans who are searching for answers about their Appalachian heritage, that they only heard stories about from their elders in hopes of keeping a legacy from dying. 

Andrew Harries Jr., a former Secret Service agent and mixed-race native from the Appalachian states, recently sat down with NPR to explain how he’s been searching for answers about the Melungeons for most of his life. 

“I’m still seeking information,” Harris told NPR. “Finding out about this, it was just like overwhelming for me, it was just a lot.”

He continued, “Even today at 70 years old, you know, I’m trying to play catch up on who I am.”

America is a melting pot. So why haven’t we embraced the people who’ve represented that even before this country’s beginning?  

The answer is undoubtedly racism, but the beauty of history is it’s never too late to learn. It’s also never too late to celebrate the pioneers of the past and the Melungeon people are everything that America is supposed to represent.


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