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Producer, videographer: Ernie Lee Martin
In Search of Origins
In Eastern Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, people with dark skin and blue eyes have lived for centuries, representing a different ethnic heritage from the Scotch-Irish immigrants typically associated with the area. They are known as the Melungeons.
Exactly what ethnic heritage the Melungeons represent, though, is a matter of much research activity (and sometimes heated debate). In this special episode, Kentucky Life consults historians, archaeologists, and authors to discover who the Melungeons were—and who they are today.
The arrival of the Melungeons in the New World may have predated the first settlement at Jamestown; some historical records indicate that Melungeons were living in Appalachia as early as 1567. One theory is that they are descendants of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors who intermarried with local Native American tribes. Other researchers contend that the Melungeons actually have Muslim roots, in Turkey or elsewhere in the Middle East, while some have speculated that they represent black/white intermarriage, “hushed up” by later racism.
Whatever their origins, estimates put the number of Melungeon descendants today at around 200,000. Recent years have seen a flurry of activity aimed at recovering and honoring Melungeon heritage, including a 1997 “family reunion” in Virginia called First Union.
This look at the Melungeons originally aired, with a different host’s introduction, as Kentucky Life Program 416.
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