Years ago, at a country store near Sneedville, I saw one of the most beautiful women my eyes have ever encountered.
It was early spring, yet the young lady looked like she had basked in Florida sunshine for weeks. Her bronze skin fairly glowed. She was high of cheekbone and walked like a runway model, albeit one clad in farm clothes instead of the latest fashions from Paris.
Back at our vehicle, I asked my buddy: "Did you see that woman?"
"You think I'm blind?" he laughed. "What a looker! I'll bet she's a Melungeon. You don't see many of them any more."
True on both counts.
As a group, these so-called "mysterious people" of Southern Appalachian were darker of skin than most Caucasians. What's more, for over a half-century, human migration for jobs and education has folded these once-isolated folks into the ever-simmering melting pot of Americana, just as it has done throughout the Southland.
From the "Guineas" of West Virginia to the "Brass Ankles" of South Carolina to the "Redbones" of the Gulf Coast, nearly every region of this country has its legendary tribes of unknown origin.
In the case of rural, high-country eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia, they were Melungeons. And although the word is spoken as a source of anthropological pride these days, using the m-word just a few generations ago was akin to invoking the n-word today.
"Where did the Melungeons come from?" has been asked around here for as long as I can remember.
The popular and politically correct thinking, especially during the Jim Crow era, was that they were descended from Portuguese. In theory, at least, this gave them some degree of legal separation from blacks — although court records prove instances where Melungeons had to fight for even basic rights.
Other scientists have indicated "tri-racial" roots: European, Native American and African. Modern DNA analysis, as recently reported in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy, shows a direct African link among the subjects who were tested.
The plain, simple and ugly truth is that Melungeons — like the 200 or so other mixed-ethnic groups in America — were minorities who were persecuted simply because they were different from "us" — whoever the majority "us" happened to be in that particular location.
I'd like to think society has progressed. And maybe it has.
But on any given day, when you can hear cruel racial jokes passed along freely and read email invective aimed at the president of the United States merely for the color of his skin, I sometimes wonder if we aren't still trapped in the 18th century.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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