In a Libraries' Diversity Committee sponsored lecture, Wayne Winkler, a Melungeon, came to speak on Tuesday, March 11, at Hodges Library about the mysterious unknown origin of Melungeons.
"One of the Committee's goals is to promote understanding between cultures here on campus and in the local community," Sarah Green, co-chair of the Diversity Committee, said. The topic of Melungeons is unique to this area because there is a high concentration of them in East Tennessee, southern Kentucky and West Virginia. Another interesting aspect of Melungeons is their enigmatic origin. "Researchers can't exactly discover what their heritage is," Green said.
Many people suspect or believe they have Melungeon ancestry; I am one of those who knows it for a fact. Therefore, several researchers have been interested in my DNA, possibly to establish some sort of model for Melungeon DNA.
Winkler shared his personal DNA ethno print, which listed him relating to people from Somalia to China. The Melungeons are known as a tri-racial isolate group, meaning their heritage is affiliated with Europeans, Blacks and Native Americans. However, they do not identify themselves as belonging to any one of these groups.
They have suffered mistreatment and prejudice during their struggle to assimilate over the years. Winkler recalls his first time hearing the word Melungeon from a stranger who used it as a derogatory term to refer to his grandmother. When he asked his mother what a Melungeon, was, she could only answer that because his grandmother was one, it made his father and him one too.
There is no accepted definition of Melungeons, which makes it difficult to study them as a people. Winkler said many people ask him the question, "What cultural things set the Melungeons apart from their neighbors?" His response, "And the answer is very little." Winkler describes them as people who lived on the frontier because of social stigma against them. The Melungeons tried to assimilate into society who believed them to be distrustful and malevolent.
"The majority of white people who live around Melungeons have a uniform opinion of the origins of Melungeons. They believe they descended from runaway slaves, renegade Indians and poor white trash," Winkler said.
Other theories include:
- Descendants from the lost colony of Roanoke
- Deserters from Hernando Cortes expedition
- Shipwrecked sailors
In the 1960s, an outdoors drama ran from 1969 to 1976 that established a positive connotation with Melungeons in Hancock County, Tenn. This helped revolutionize societal perceptions of Melungeons.
"I'm proud to be called a Melungeon," Winkler said. Melungeons are self-identifying themselves and most have successfully assimilated into society. "Race is something that was developed by society in order to say that ‘they' had some superiority over other people," Winkler said. He follows the beliefs of the American Anthropological Association that there is no such thing as race; instead, they talk in terms of ethnicities.
A veil of mystery still keeps the genealogy of Melungeons in the dark despite continual research. "Blood studies and DNA testing are raising more questions than answering them," Winkler said. To learn more about the Melungeons, you can read Winkler's novel, "Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia."