Monday, January 25, 2016


Note: Please bear in mind this paper was written well before the autosomal DNA tests had any practical purpose in genealogy or population studies. Dr. Brodwin's remarks concern only Y chromosome and mtDNA.

by Dr. Paul Brodwin

The conflict between the agendas of scientific genetics and popular movements for recognition and sovereignty does not always implicate chiefly differences in power.
Geneticists, of course, do not always end up as the enemies of people providing DNA. In the case described below, members of a small, once-isolated group requested DNA analysis to validate their claims of collective ancestry.
They were happy to find a geneticist willing to take on their project, but he eventually had serious misgivings about the entire enterprise.
People asked him to provide evidence about cultural identity and descent, but he knows his science is irrelevant to their most pressing questions.

The rest of this article examines the use of DNA evidence to assert identity claims among the Melungeons, a multiracial group from southern Appalachia.

Their demand for and reception of genetic studies have generated several conflicts, but not along the familiar fault-lines. This case featured few political disagreements about whether research should proceed.
Obtaining cheek swabs and hair roots, extracting the DNA, and growing cell lines did not provoke a popular outcry about imperialism or formal ethical self-scrutiny. Melungeons’’ demand for collective recognition proved incommensurable not with the politics of genetic research, but instead with the limits that researchers themselves place on,

160 P. BRODWIN interpretation of their findings. This case turned on the conceptual vulnerability of human population genetics: the mismatch between scientific and popular views about the ability of genetics evidence to establish collective origins and identity.

A formal protocol such as the MEP, meant to adjudicate between acceptable and unacceptable research practices, cannot particularly help geneticists who face a conflict not with potential DNA donors, but instead with their own
professional and intellectual commitments.
The geneticist who worked with the Melungeons was thus pushed into an even murkier ethical terrain than the HGDP
defenders. He found it impossible to resolve the relevant conflicts without abandoning his fundamental dedication to his scientific craft.

For over 100 years, journalists, social scientists, and folklorists have written about the Melungeons of northeastern Tennessee and neighboring regions of Virginia and Kentucky. In a journalistic idiom, the Melungeons are a "lost tribe," Virginia’s mystery race," an "almost exinct," or "dwindling hill clan," to cite titles of popular magazine articles over the years.
However, attempts at a more accurate description quickly get caught up in the same identity politics that divide the group itself and that drive its current interest in genetic research. Until recently, most academic accounts classified Melungeons as an enclaved community of mixed black, white, and American Indian ancestry, one of several such groups living in the eastern and southern United States.

The anthropologist Gilbert (1946) included Melungeons in his detailed list of "mixed-blood racial islands"——groups that are considered racially distinct by their white, black, and Native American neighbors——along with the Brass Ankles and Croatans of the Carolinas, the Red Bones of Louisiana, the Guineas of West Virginia and Maryland, and the Jackson Whites of New Jersey.6 Gilbert characterized all these groups as backward minorities, suffering from illiteracy and poverty, difficult to classify racially, and needing assimilation to improve their condition.

Other social scientists forgo the paternalism, but offer similar accounts of Melungeon origins. Price (1951) traces the Melungeons to a fluid mixed-race society living in the 18th century in Virgina and the Carolinas. For Beale (1957),

they are a "tri-racial isolate," one of 27 such groups found throughout
the South. Such groups contain "intermingled Indian, white, and Negro ancestry," and
they persist as singular, bounded communities because of their geographical
isolation and the legal or customary restrictions on marriage with both whites and
blacks (see also Berry 1963). Most recently, DeMarce (1992, 1993)——a professional

historian and genealogist——has documented Indian––white, black––white, and
black––Indian amalgamations among the historic source populations of Melungeons.
She also traces the likely migration of major Melungeon families from west central Virginia into the core area of northeast Tennessee where most people who now call themselves Melungeon trace their lineage.

BIOETHICS IN ACTION 161 Until the early 1990s, these scholarly representations remained unchallenged by Melungeons themselves, simply because few people actually admitted to being one. Berry’’s informants told him only that he would find Melungeons
"across the creek" or "in the next hollow" (Berry 1963: 17). Price learned how to
identify typical Melungeon surnames and physical traits from individuals who specifically disclaimed the identity. Beale noted that in the 1950 Tennessee census,
individuals locally known as Melungeon were most often marked by census workers as
white, less often as Negro, and occasionally as Indian. He emphasizes that the designation
of tri-racial comes from the outside investigator, not the groups themselves. In fact,

"the mixed-blood individual will usually insist——with vehemence, if
necessary——that there is no Negro ancestry in his family . . . but that he is partly

(Beale 1957: 188). Cavender (1981) found the same situation during fieldwork
in Hancock County, Tennessee, in 1979 and 1980. People identified by others
as Melungeon usually denied the very existence of the group. Most whites,
moreover, used the term simply as an epithet for anyone who was poor or had a
suspected black ancestor. People interviewed by the above researchers presumably did
not self-identify as Melungeon for several reasons: to escape the term’’s lower
class connotations (shiftless, backwards, thieving); to avoid the danger to one’’s
rights and status from acknowledging black ancestry (seeDeMarce 1992: 6––7); or
simply because the term no longer existed as a meaningful ethnic marker.

"Melungeon" during this period was an exonym, a term that outsiders used
to identify the group, but that no one used to label themselves (see Puckett,
2001). The word reinforced the class hierarchy and racial boundaries of southern

However, the meaning and uses of the term began to change in the 1960s. In
1966, two economists, professors from Jefferson City, Tennessee, conducted a
regional economic study of Hancock County, at that time among the ten poorest
counties in the nation. They recommended the development of tourism and, in
particular, suggested "a drama featuring the mystery of the Melungeon settlement in the
county . . . [t]he natural spin-off from the drama would be an outlet for handicraft
items" as well as food and lodging services for tourists (quoted in Ivey 1977:

102). The play Walk Towards the Sunset: The Melungeon Story——a sentimental
narrative about two centuries of anti-Melungeon prejudice——opened in 1969 in
the Hancock County town of Sneedville (Beale 1990).

The play produced a short-lived tourism boom, but it also inaugurated a
deeper change in the value and significance of Melungeon identity. In 1973,
Sneedville residents began for the first time to identify themselves as Melungeon or to 

acknowledge Melungeon ancestry (Ivey 1977). Only a few years later, a self-labeled
insider to the group complained to Cavender that some of the people "coming out
of the closet" as Melungeons were actually imposters (Cavender 1981: 32).
The next phase in this process of ethnic reinvention began two decades later
with the publication of The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People (Kennedy

162 P. BRODWIN 1997, first edition published in 1994). In his book, N. Brent Kennedy, PhD, the vice-chancellor of development at Clinch Valley College, Virginia, describes
how his struggle with Sarcoidosis, a chronic inflammatory disease, led him to
reconstruct his family genealogy, embrace his Melungeon heritage, and explore the
origin and racial makeup of the group. Now in its second edition, the book serves
as the first contact for many people entering Melungeon circles. Kennedy
also enlisted academic support to find the Melungeon Research Committee (now the
Melungeon Heritage Association [MHA]), and he organized the growing interest
in Melungeon identity into a series of yearly meetings. The "First Union,"
held in 1997 at ClinchValley College with over 500 attendees, featured talks on
genealogy and grantsmanship, along with Appalachian music and storytelling.
7 Subsequent meetings have been held yearly in Kentucky and Tennessee. People who
consider themselves Melungeon regularly attend these meetings, and they also
participate in a vast web presence of family associations and competing home pages that
assert different origin theories or explore connections with African-American and
Native American groups.

In the 1990s, therefore, thousands of people began to claim Melungeon
identity or descent. The exonym became an autonym. Individuals who once shunned
the label (or did not even know it existed) now claim it publicly and use it
as an entr ´ee into new face-to-face as well as virtual communities. As with
many emerging identity movements, conflicts over authenticity and the prerogative
to define the group’’s essence and boundaries divide today’’s Melungeons.
8 First of all, people living in the Appalachians who have personally suffered from
the stigma of poverty and suspected black ancestry have different reasons to
proclaim themselves Melungeon than do those whose ancestors left the region three or
four generations ago and securely enjoy white status. Even locally, the
better-educated individuals who organize the yearly gatherings inadvertently separate
themselves from the poorer majority, who often cannot afford the registration fees and
the time off from work. In fact, the majority of people attending the Fourth
Union held in 2002 were retirees, often from out of state, with a sprinkling of
white-collar professionals. Finally, certain Melungeons privilege their Indian descent
and seek legal recognition as a tribe,
9 thereby alienating themselves from theMHA, which explicitly does not seek tribal status. The revitalization of Melungeon identity also participates in broader social
changes. According to Darlene Wilson, a historian and long-time MHA board
member, the Melungeon movement aims to reverse the economic and racial caste
system of the United States (Wilson 1998). She believes Melungeon ethnic activities hasten the long-term retreat of American racism, a viewpoint echoed on the MHAweb page:"

"We firmly believe in the dignity of all such mixed ancestry groups of southern Appalachia and commit to preserving their rich heritage of racial harmony and diversity."10 Kennedy’s book, a touchstone for many present-day

BIOETHICS IN ACTION 163 Melungeons, adopts the common formulae of late 20th century identity politics:

The restrictive choices of either quietly accepting our "stigma"[as
Melungeon] or sweeping it under the rug in the pitiful self-delusion of "being like everyone else"were unacceptable.

To me there seemed to be a third, admittedly blasphemous option: to embrace
our heritage——whatever it might be——and wear it like a banner . . . . My mother, at first uneasy over my decision to come out of theMelungeon closet, quickly came to understand. (Kennedy 1997:
7)Intentionally or not, Kennedy’’s self-description recalls the shame of trying to pass as white or to normalize a physical disability, as well as the ordeal of acknowledging one’’s homosexuality to family members. As the Melungeons’’most well-known spokesman, Kennedy demands recognition in terms similar to those employed by many other groups in the national political scene. His calls to overcome internalized stigma, to make authentic contact with oneself, and to honor group distinctiveness in the face of pressures to assimilate are all standard ingredients in contemporary politics of difference (Taylor 1992: 38 and passim).

For many Melungeons, the right to establish their own origin story is the
most public demand for recognition. Of all the speculations about origins that
circulated in popular accounts, the claim of Portuguese descent has the oldest
published history, dating to at least 1848.11 Academic and popular writers have
long reported that individuals classified as Melungeon (when that term was still
an exonym) would call themselves Portuguese, often pronounced

Kennedy (1997) supports the Portuguese theory and adds to it ancestry claims
about Turks and Moors who settled in the colonial southeastern United

His complicated account comes wrapped in a demand to respect his Melungeon
ancestors who, he says, were telling the truth when they described themselves as
Portuguese. The "tri-racial isolate" theory, he writes, traces white ancestry exclusively
to the British Isles. It is not only incorrect, it is also politically damaging, for it denies people "the God-given right to claim their national or specific ethnic heritages"

" (Kennedy 1997: 100). For Kennedy and his supporters,12 establishing an authoritative origin story is an a priori right of the Melungeon community. This collectivity, like all
others, deserves recognition in terms of its own choosing, even (or especially) in
the face of outsider experts. Many Melungeons fiercely support Kennedy’’s ideas about
Portuguese origins. They reject the standard scholarly opinion that the
group arose from an amalgam of northern Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans.

They claim that calling Melungeons a "tri-racial isolate" connotes
inbreeding, inferiority, and hence reproduces the elitist stereotype of Appalachian

Claims of Portuguese descent generate polemics for a second and even more
highly charged reason. Scholarly opinion holds that Melungeons (and other
mixed-race groups) historically called themselves Portuguese to deflect suspicion

164 P. BRODWIN of African ancestry. DeMarce (1993) and Henige (1998) both cite an 1872 Tennessee Supreme Court decision that classified a Melungeon woman as a descendant of ancient Carthagenians who long resided in Portugal, and hence not Negro.
The ruling legalized her marriage to a white man and enabled her child to
inherit the father’’s estate (DeMarce 1993: 33). In general, many people insecure about
their racial identity in the antebellum and Jim Crow South tried to pass as white
by claiming Portuguese or other southern European ancestry (Everett 1999: 370).

According to Henige (1984), the label Portuguese is a contrived defense
mechanism that reinforces one’’s endangered white status. Henige (1998: 280) applied
this perspective to Kennedy’’s book, which he faults for its studied ambivalence
about acknowledging black ancestry. Henige’’s critique as well as the long history
of claims about Portuguese descent made by groups in the South raises the
stakes considerably.
For Brent Kennedy, proving the Portuguese origin story would not only vindicate the right of Melungeons to author their own history. It would also exonerate him and the Melungeons from charges of crypto-racism and of disguising the truth about group origins: serious matters in the current climate of identity politics.


To convince others to accept his theory of Melungeon origins, Kennedy turned
to population genetics:The call for DNA really came from outside the community, not within.
It really came from scholars who took offense at our writings, who criticized these
outlandish claims that differed from the standard tri-racial accounts. They said that these
claims cannot be substantiated, given the historical records that we have here in Virginia,
where we think the core Melungeon population originated. They said that the only way you can prove these theories of Mediterranean, Turkish, Portuguese, or Jewish origin, or the possible source for the illnesses that people have, is through DNA (Brent Kennedy).13

In the early 1990s, Kennedy had consulted several academic geneticists who
told him that a proper population study——with DNA samples from both
Melungeons and comparison populations in Portugal and Turkey——would cost over a
million dollars. In the following years, however, advances in mapping the
human genome brought the price down considerably. Thanks to PCR technology and
new databases of regionally and ethnically labeled DNA, geneticists can now
take DNA samples locally and make probabilistic statements about population
history without collecting new samples from distant parts of the world (see Bradman
and Thomas 1998, and for a popular account, Sykes 2001).

In 1998, Kennedy presented his ideas for genetics research to Kevin Jones——a
British molecular biologist and newly arrived assistant professor at the University

BIOETHICS IN ACTION 165 of Virginia College at Wise (the re-named ClinchValley College).Although he had never heard of the Melungeons, Jones took on the project because he was intrigued by the patterns of unusual diseases (e.g., thalassemia and Familial Mediterranean Fever) typically associated with southern European ancestry that also occur among white, presumably Scotch––Irish, Appalachians. Brent Kennedy, however, wanted the genetics research to authenticate certain ancestry claims, not to
reconstruct disease patterns, and he essentially steered the research in his direction. Kennedy oversaw the collection of DNA samples from descendants of the historic core
Melungeon population, and Jones genotyped the population (by calculating the
frequency of particular makers on the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and the
non recombineng portion of the Y chromosome), and compared Melungeon frequencies
to those recorded for various world populations. (Jones has not yet published the Melungeon data, but he says his approach parallels the work by Weale et al. 2002
and Wilson et al. 2001.)

The cultural politics of self-ascribed Melungeons interacted with the
technical demands of population genetics to produce the "rough edges" of Jones’’s
research: the zones of conflict between professional and lay expectations (see Bosk

To begin with, this sort of research requires a clearly identified core
population for sampling. However, the inclusion criteria for this group are essentially

People who now call themselves Melungeon live both in southern Appalachia
and across the United States show a range of complexions and physical types, and
bear a number of surnames. Conversely, many people with the same residence,
appearance, and surnames do not identify as Melungeons. By necessity, Jones
relied entirely on Brent Kennedy to delineate the core Melungeon group.

I decided whom to sample. I think I know who are the original Melungeons,
those who lived between 1725 and 1790. I asked myself, can we locate the descendants of  those people?

Hence, we chose seven or eight people on the Virginia side and ten on the
Vardy, Tennessee, side.We began with these people who everyone agrees are the original
Melungeons. It was very easy to find their descendants. We all know who was related to whom; we just had to  find the right cousin (Brent Kennedy).
14 At this stage, Kevin Jones’’s role was to ensure that enough samples were
collected, that they came from independent lineages and that the descent was
traced exclusively through the female or male line, a requirement for
research with mtDNA and Y chromosome markers.

In contrast to the HGDP, the process of collecting Melungeon DNA did not
raise any questions about group sovereignty or informed consent. Kennedy presented
his plan for sampling to the Vardy Historical Society, a local community board of self-identified Melungeons. They immediately endorsed it, as did the people
approached in Virginia. In fact, Melungeons began to request DNA testing in
numbers that far exceeded the needs of research and the technical capacity in

(To be continued)

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. Thank you. I have the Bunch family (identified as a core family) as well as Blevins and Walling (sometimes identified as intermarrying families) in my family tree. Did the author ever post a follow-up to this article? I just shared it to the Melungeons and Friends of Melungeons Facebook group.