The Melungeon people of east Tennessee were isolated and discriminated against throughout much of their history. They began to be “othered” in the 1800s for being mixed-race Appalachians.
Melungeons are considered a tri-racial isolate, meaning they are a combination of traits from multiple ethnic backgrounds, thus, creating their own unique culture. Today we know the Melungeon are African, white European and Native American.
In the 1800s and into the mid-1900s, they claimed to be Portuguese or the descendents of various Mediterranean cultures to explain their dark skin, and to try to avoid discrimination.
In the 1960s, a group from Sneedville, Tennessee got together to stage an outdoor drama about the Melungeon to attract tourists to their small town. That was a turning point for the group.
In author Wayne Winkler’s new book, “Beyond the Sunset: The Melungeon Outdoor Drama,” he delves into the drama and the influence it had on the Melungeon people in general.
Winkler is himself a Melungeon, although that was not a word that was commonly used in his house growing up.
“When I was about 12 years old, I was at my grandmother’s house and read about the outdoor drama that was planned for Sneedville. It was about the Melungeons and I’d never heard that word before. I came to find out that my dad’s family shared that heritage,” he said.
If not for the staging of the outdoor drama, called “Walk Toward the Sunset,” Winkler said the Melungeons might have been assimilated out of existence. Until that period, Melungeon was an epithet and no one used it for themselves.
“I think one of the major impacts of the outdoor drama was to give people a sense of pride in their heritage, but it didn’t happen all at once,” he said. “It made it okay for Melungeons to talk about their ancestry. I think the outdoor drama, it kind of came and went, but it left a kind of a seed among our people.”
Winkler said he thinks of the Melungeon story as a parallel version of the story of Appalachia. Where once very few people claimed to be “Appalachian” in recent years many people wear it as a badge of honor.
“I like to think of us as sort of Appalachian concentrate. In the small story of the Melungeons, you can see the bigger story of Appalachia as a whole. It was around the same time (as the drama) that people in Appalachia began to take pride in their heritage. So yeah, I think there are a lot of parallels between this story and the story of Appalachia as a whole,” he said.
Heather Andolina is the president of the Melungeon Heritage Association. She only learned in the last few years that she is Melungeon and now her family is working on a documentary about the discovery.
“Our grandmother, she was a light mocha color. She underwent discrimination and prejudice. She was always said she was Cherokee. But then we started doing a little more family research and got into the DNA. When we learned about the Melungeon people, we realized that’s where our grandmother’s from. And her mother and her father, and we’re like, oh wow, this is so fascinating. It’s our own story,” Andolina said.
Andolina said her family documentary, “Infamous Characters, Notorious Villains” should be out by the end of 2020.
This review was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.