Melungeon is a term traditionally applied to one of a number of "tri-racial isolate" groups of the Southeastern United States, mainly in the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia. Tri-racial describes populations thought to be of mixed European, African, and Native American ancestry. Estimates range that as many as 200 such groups exist today.
In the census of 1950, Jackson County (which constituted the first white county formed in Alabama from the Cherokee Cession of 1816) had 70 persons identified as Melungeon, making it a notable location for this ethnic group. Common melungeon surnames include Adkins, Beam(er), Black, Blevins, Brown, Bunch, Bundren, Burke, Burns, Cooper, Davis, Fields, Gist, Gunter, Keys, Lackey, Lowrey, Redwine, Riley, Shankles, and Sizemore.
Some Melungeons carry distinct physical characteristics that have been handed down through generations, including the presence of an Anatolian bump is noted, being about the size of half of a golf ball and located on the back of the head in the midline just above where the skull and the neck meet. The two front teeth and the two on either side have a ridge on the back near the gum line and also curve outward creating a shovel tooth while the front remains perfectly straight. Some Melungeons have been known to have six fingers or toes; they are described as being dark skinned, some with red hair and blue or green eyes.
The Melungeon people were reticent about their heritage and often hid their ethnic ancestry for fear of discrimination, one of the reasons the group became a “lost tribe,” even to themselves. Hirschman’s research has turned up genealogical and DNA evidence that suggests that such luminaries as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, John Sevier (Xavier), President Abraham Lincoln, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, subject of the film “A Beautiful Mind,” were of this same ethnic ancestry.
There were inconsiderate struggles for the land the Melungeons dwelled on, the whites, in retaliation, declared the dark-skinned people as "free persons of color." This episode stripped the Melungeons of many rights, including the right to vote, to own their own land, educate their children properly, to defend themselves in courts of law, and to intermarry with anyone who was not also Melungeon. These rights, according to Brent Kennedy, a Melungeon researcher, states that "Melungeons had always been precluded to get all those rights until 1942."
Melungeons would not send their children to black schools and they were not allowed in the white schools, so the Tennessee Department of Education had "Indian" schools for them. This led to almost total illiteracy among Melungeons. In Tennessee until the 1950's and 60's, Melungeons were usually classified as black for marriage, white for voting and Indian for education.
The origin of the name melungeon, which was considered derogatory until recently, is disputed as much as the heritage. It might be a version of the French word for mix: mélange, or from an African word malungo, meaning shipmate, or the Turkish melun jinn, meaning "cursed soul."
Today, the term Melungeon applies to both Whites and Blacks of the four-state region (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky) who share common surnames, common claims to Portuguese ancestral ties, distinctive physical features, and common folk culture. Black or White, referents often consider the appellation a pejorative one.
Numerous groups similar to the Melungeons have been identified historically in at least eighteen of the eastern United States. The total population of such groups has been estimated at 75,000 and the names these groups bear are in many cases as puzzling as the term "Melungeon." They have been called "racial islands," "tri-racial isolates," "racial hybrids," "mestizos," and "mixed-blood groups."
Melungeons do not exist today in the way they existed a century ago, as objects of suspicion and discrimination, defined by the community through legend and folklore. To be a Melungeon descendant today is to recognize one's multi-ethnic heritage, and the fact that one's ancestors faced some degree of discrimination for being non-white in a racist society.
In our view, the originally-formed Melungeon community (1540-1890) constituted an emergent ethnic community; one which combined aspects of Sephardic Jewish, Muslim Moorish, and Indigenous culture. Supporting this classification is the fact that among the Melungeon communities in Appalachia there were shared conventions of worship (Old Primitive Baptist), funerary procedures, foodways (e.g., "tomato" and "chocolate" gravy) and child-rearing patterns that set them apart from both white and indigenous settlements in the area.
Now a new DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate truth from oral tradition and wishful thinking. The study found the truth to be somewhat less exotic: Genetic evidence shows that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.