For Some People of Appalachia, Complicated Roots

For centuries the Melungeon people of Appalachia believed they were of Portuguese descent. Turns out, their direct lineage is more African than anything else. Guest host Maria Hinojosa speaks with Roberta Estes, lead researcher on a recent study about the ancestral make up of the Melungeons. Also joining the conversation is Wayne Winkler, a Melungoen man and author of the book "Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia."

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MARIA HINOJOSA, HOST:

Switching gears now to a story from the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, home to a population of mixed race people called the Melungeons. That's a term that, decades ago, used to be a derogatory one. The Melungeons were dark-skinned and isolated, but the ethnicity of these olive and brown-skinned families has been in question since the early 1800s.

Oral tradition - and perhaps convenience - had the Melungeons believing they were of Portuguese descent, but a new study published in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy points to African ancestry.

Joining us now to talk more about this new information is the lead researcher of the study, Roberta Estes. Also with us is Wayne Winkler, author of the book, "Walking Towards the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia," and a Melungeon man himself.

Welcome to both of you.

WAYNE WINKLER: Thank you very much.

ROBERTA ESTES: Thank you. Glad to be with you today.

HINOJOSA: Wayne, I want to start with you because you are a member of a Melungeon family. So, when you were growing up, what were you told about your history and your heritage?

WINKLER: I don't recall my family using the term Melungeon before 1968. Before then, my dad always described his family as being Indian, which made a lot of sense, given their appearance. But, in 1968, in Hancock County where my dad is from, the Hancock County Drama Association began an outdoor drama about the Melungeons and it was sort of - it sort of changed things for all the people there in terms of how they viewed Melungeons. And it became something to be proud of rather than something to be ashamed of and that's when I learned that my dad's family was of Melungeon descent.

HINOJOSA: But, at that time, you found out that your dad was a part of the Melungeon community, but you were not told that that had any kind of roots in Africa. Right? You were told what? That it was Portuguese or just Native American or Indian? What did you understand it?

WINKLER: I understood that it was a mix of various things and some of my relatives would mention that African might be included in that, but it was primarily Native American and Portuguese - was what was usually mentioned. Native American, mostly.

HINOJOSA: Roberta, you conducted the research that led to this discovery about the Melungeon people, that there are African roots. So what's interesting is that, in a lot of ways what's being revealed her is that, yes, there's an African ancestry, but really, it's evidence of race mixing and that's really a central part of American history. Isn't that right, Roberta?

ESTES: Yes, it is. And I want to point out here that the African ancestry in these family lines is a long way back. These people were together. There's a core group of families of the 16 in Hawkins in Hancock County, there were about 10 - actually nine - that were found together very early, in the early to mid-1700s in Louisa County and Hanover County, Virginia.

And these families - all of the families with African heritage on the male side go back to Louisa County, Virginia, and so this add mixture occurred very early. It occurred probably in the late 1600s or the early 1700s. And what we haven't talked about is the maternal side. We did some testing there and we found that to be all European of the people that we tested.

HINOJOSA: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Maria Hinojosa and we're talking about the Melungeon people of the Appalachian region and the new discovery of their African ancestry. Our guests are Wayne Winkler, author of "Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia," and Roberta Estes, who researched the DNA of Melungeon people.

Roberta, this isn't just about genealogy. What does this tell us about the social conditions, essentially, that led to the creation of the Melungeon people?

ESTES: I think it helps us learn a great deal about the history of this country and of racial mixing and the effects it had on people and the lengths that they had to go to to function, to be able to find opportunities for themselves, for their children. And, a lot of times, that meant moving west and there's that - we have a joke about how you turned white when you moved west and that's not because people were prejudiced. It's because they needed opportunities and those opportunities were denied people of color and people of color were not only people of African descent, but people of Indian descent, as well.

So I think what it does is it helps us understand, not only in the Melungeons, but in other mixed race communities, as well, just the lengths that people simply had to go to in that timeframe to be able to function, to own land and to just function and earn a living for their families.

HINOJOSA: Wayne, just to finish up - so what's the feeling on the ground among the community? What's the takeaway? How are people talking about this? Is there excitement, relief, concern? What's the sentiment?

WINKLER: I think there is a bit of concern that the test did not bring to light any Native American ancestry, but as I've talked to people and I've spoken to different groups and as people read the report, which is 100 pages - so some of the people who have opinions on the test have not actually read it. But I think, as people understand what this is, they see it as, really, a foundation for future research and not the last word.

As they understand more about the procedure and about what the test can show and what it doesn't show, they understand that it's the beginning of some real scientific research. And I think, as the technology improves, we're going to be able to find a lot more, so I think, for a lot of people, this is just the beginning of what we're going to be able to learn about the Melungeons.

HINOJOSA: Roberta, this is an ongoing process. What more do you think you might find out about the Melungeon people and how do you think that that might change things for the people of this area of the Appalachians and of Tennessee?

ESTES: Well, it's an ongoing project and I'm glad you mentioned that because, while we do have most of the family lines represented in the DNA project, what we don't have is all the people represented and I want to give you an example of why that's important. We have 112 patriarchs listed. Now, these are individual people on a list that were identified as Melungeon in the early records. We have 35 of those represented in the DNA testing.

So we really want people who are from these family lines to test because we continue to learn and we may yet find additional native heritage - direct native heritage if people do continue to test, especially on the female lines, which really have been under-tested to this point. And it's very likely that the native lines did come through the females. That was the traditional way that this normally happened.

HINOJOSA: That's Roberta Estes, president of DNAeXplain and lead author of the study, Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population. She joined us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And Wayne Winkler is of Melungeon descent and an author of the book, "Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia." Wayne joined us from member station WETS in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Thanks again to both of you.

ESTES: Thank you.

WINKLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HINOJOSA: Up next, no matter what you think of them, the Kardashians know how to start a debate. This time, it's over putting their daughter on birth control before she turns 16.

KRIS JENNER: Kim came to me and was very honest with me and said, Mommy, I think I'm feeling, you know, sexual and this and that. I drove as fast as I could to the gynecologist's office and I...

HINOJOSA: Is this proactive parenting or promoting promiscuity? We'll ask the Beauty Shop ladies next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Maria Hinojosa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HINOJOSA: Filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes' newest project follows two investigators as they try to debunk theories about paranormal activities and get ready. The director says he has some tricks to keep you guessing.

RODRIGO CORTES: Magic and filmmaking, in a way, are exactly the same things.

HINOJOSA: We talk about the film "Red Lights" starring Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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