Melungeons and the Mixed Race Experience
A speech given to the Melungeon "Sixth Union" Conference on June 9, 2006.
by A.D. Powell
One of the many "hidden histories" of the United States has been the story of the massive government effort to deny the existence of mixed-race people and, especially, the multiracial ancestry within the so-called "white race" (or more appropriately, white caste). Most Americans have probably been taught some form of what sociologists call hypodescent – the idea that the offspring of so-called "interracial" unions inevitably increase the population of the nonwhite ancestral group or, if there is more than one nonwhite ancestral group, the population with the lowest social status.
American history books are filled with sad stories of oppression designed to make students cry for the trials and tribulations of blacks, Indians, Mexicans, Asians, etc. Students are often told, at some point, that there is a "one drop rule" in the United States forcing an unwanted and involuntary blackness on even the whitest people with that tainted ancestry. They are NOT told that this so-called rule is openly violated every day by millions of people. They are NOT told about the partial African ancestry in Hispanics and Arabs. And they are most certainly NEVER told about Melungeons, Redbones, Creoles and numerous internal ethnic groups, sub-cultures and individuals who resisted efforts to push them into the lower caste of a binary racial caste system. If students WERE told these things, they would have to conclude that hypodescent can no longer be forced AND, more importantly, that white racial purity does not exist.
Mixed-race people in the U.S. have always found it difficult to fight against government attacks. We are talking about a diverse population composed of isolated groups and individuals. What do you do when a Walter Plecker of Virginia or a Naomi Drake<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> of Louisiana goes on a crusade to subject you to permanent denigration? What do you do when your state legislature passes a law forcing a different (and false) racial and ethnic identity on your family? All too often, individuals and families have been left alone to cope with the terror of state persecution. Should you speak out and try to rally the public to your cause? The shame and stigma of admitting to an officially tainted ancestry usually eliminates that option. In U.S. history, white racial status and honor have been almost synonymous. Non-white status has been associated with a lack of honor.
You have all probably heard of the heroic efforts of Mrs. Susie Guilory Phipps of Louisiana<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> who, in 1982, mounted a legal challenge to Louisiana's infamous law stating that anyone with more than 1/32 Negro blood was unworthy of the unspoken but very real "honor" of being "white." Mrs. Phipps took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court which, in 1986, refused to hear her case. However, Louisiana was so embarrassed by the sympathetic press her case generated, that they eliminated the infamous law that started the case in the first place. The question we should ask here is why did Mrs. Phipps have to fight alone? Louisiana's racist law of racial classification had victimized thousands of people. Similar laws in other states had victimized untold thousands throughout the nation. Why didn't they rise up or speak out in support of Mrs. Phipps? When individual blacks, Jews, Hispanics, Asian Americans or American Indians are attacked because of their ancestry, we often see their organizations rise up in outrage and proclaim to the media and nation that an injury to one of them is an injury to all. The response of mixed-race people to attacks on other mixed-race people, however, is to hunker down, keep quiet, and hope you're not noticed. Isn't this what happened when Walter Plecker went after the Melungeons? When you don't officially exist, how can you defend yourself? How can you demand justice? Will Melungeons stand up for a future Mrs. Phipps?
In the mid 1990's, new organizations came into being to proclaim the existence of mixed-race people and state that we actually do have rights and identities that others are bound to respect. There was the Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans (AMEA) and Project RACE ("Reclassify All Children Equally"), which targeted school districts and state and federal statistics gathers who insisted on forcing multiracial children into monoracial official categories. My emphasis here, however, will be on the activist web sites "Interracial Voice" and "The Multiracial Activist." They have gone far beyond the mandates of other mixed-race activist groups to critique the American culture as a whole, examine and encourage historical research, and reach out to others who suffered under laws of forced hypodescent.
Charles Michael Byrd, the founder of "Interracial Voice," was born in Abingdon, Virginia (Washington County) in 1952. Perhaps some of you are familiar with the place. His mother was predominately black with Indian and white ancestry. His father was a so-called "pure white." Imagine the pain of growing up in Jim Crow Virginia! God and your father's genes have made you white but, officially, you don't have any white ancestry! By law, you don't belong to your father's family or his race. Officially, you are a "Negro" – black ancestry is all you may officially claim. How can you look white and be "really" black? Are you a genetic freak or mutation? If you cannot claim white ancestry, what else can you be? This is the fate that Walter Plecker, Naomi Drake and their spiritual kin wanted to force on your families.
When Charles was young, family members told him that he was "black" but "light-skinned" ("Light-skinned black" is an oxymoron if there ever was one.). Outside of the family, however, the reaction from blacks was "Who's the white boy?" Being a white person of mixed ancestry with a "light-skinned black" label does NOT make you "black." It makes you a helpless white upon whom blacks can safely take out their hatred for and resentment against whites in general without fear of group retaliation. It's worse for females, who are also subjected to intense sexual harassment.
However, like so many others, Charles underwent a psychological reevaluation of his situation. When the schools of Abingdon were integrated, Charles discovered that his white classmates could not believe that he was part black, much less one of the despised "Negroes." Doesn't dark always dominate over light? Aren't we told in countless books and films that the child of a white and non-white always looks like the non-white parent? The reaction of his classmates was curious, since blacks who support the "one drop rule" insist that it is maintains by a collective repugnance that whites have for "black blood." But many whites don't know what they are supposed to believe or enforce in regard to black ancestry in otherwise white persons.
When Charles left the South for the Air Force and later New York City, the "one drop rule" looked even more ridiculous. The city was filled with Hispanics whose African ancestry was obvious but who did NOT call themselves "black" and were not forced to do so. He frequently met Italians, Greeks and other so-called pure whites who would have had a hard time using public accommodations in the Jim Crow South. Charles had to conclude that his former identity as a "light-skinned black" had been based on a lie. Charles decided to devote his time to helping other mixed-race people facing the same or similar struggles.
Contrary to "anti-passing" movies like Imitation of Life or The Human Stain, etc., the so-called black life was in fact "living a lie." Changing one's racial caste identity is as American as apple pie.
Do you see a connection here to the white Melungeons who discovered that their ancestors were classified as "free colored" during the antebellum period and later "voted with their feet" to reject Plecker's efforts to turn them into "Negroes"?
James Landrith came to the multiracial movement from a different background. Born into an officially white family, James joined the Marine Corps and there met his African-American wife, Cheryl. James began to notice that a lot of the open hostility to their marriage came from blacks rather than whites and, moreover, it was blacks who insisted that the white ancestry of his sons counted for nothing. He found, after starting his web site, that angry criticism from blacks outnumbered even the expected negative responses from white supremacists.
Both "The Multiracial Activist" and "Interracial Voice," along with their many writers and contributors, have engaged in strong critiques of American culture in regard to mixed-race people and reached out to other mixed-race groups of the European colonial diaspora – from the U.S. to Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and South Africa. If any of us stand together, even if only for a little while, the battle will be so much easier. In the name of this solidarity, we reach out to our Melungeon sisters and brothers today.
I am happy to bring you greetings from Charles Michael Byrd and James Landrith. They regret they could not be here for Sixth Union:
Charles Michael Byrd
Even though I’ve never attended a Melungeon function and have never identified as a Melungeon, I have a high level of affinity for this group. Much of this is due to my own triracial background (red, white and black), and having been born and raised in Abingdon, Virginia in Washington County.
Additionally, while the Interracial Voice website was still active, I came to exchange email communiqués with Brent Kennedy and Nancy Sparks Morrison – both of whom wrote Guest Editorials for IV.
Brent Kennedy first emailed me on July 02, 2002. Actually, Brent’s uncle, Doyle Kennedy, forwarded an email exchange between the two of us to Brent. That conversation centered around a book that I self-published earlier that year entitled “Beyond Race: The Bhagavad-gita in Black and White.” I came across Doyle’s email address in a media article about the Melungeons and contacted him, including a promo for the book. The following is Doyle’s response to me:
Do you consider yourself and your ethnic heritage to be Melungeon, which is a mixture of Cherokee, white, black, and/or other, originally (rather, at one point in time) from the North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee area? I had never heard of Melungeon until a few years ago when my nephew, Brent Kennedy wrote his book, "The Melungeons, The Resurrection of a Proud People", with the subtitle “The Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America.”
After Brent's research, and after reading his book, I discovered that my mother is almost certainly part Melungeon (including Cherokee), and that many of my relatives have even closer connections to the Melungeons. I then became very interested in the Melungeon heritage and history.
My response to Doyle:
Hello. It's good to make your acquaintance. To be frank, I never heard of a Melungeon until about 6 years or so ago. I was born in Abingdon, Virginia which is the county seat of Washington County and is about 15 miles north of the Tennessee border. We knew that society viewed us as "black," but we also knew we were something else. Every now and then we'd hear the term mulatto. My maternal great-aunt often told me that back in the 20s or 30s the newspapers would use that term in addition to "black" whenever something happened that warranted press coverage — oftentimes, something bad.
I've heard of Brent's work but have not read his book. Anyway, whatever people call themselves, I sense a growing number of individuals beginning to question not only the race notion but the need for tribal affiliation in general. On the other hand, maybe that's just me 🙂
Charles Michael Byrd
Later that day, I received this from Brent:
My Uncle, Doyle Kennedy, is to be congratulated for making the contact — we're increasingly on the same wavelength here, my friend. Attached are some links you might enjoy. Also, my most recent statement
(which I'm certain parallels your thinking) can be found at: http://www.melungeons.com
Stay in touch — have ordered your book and looking forward to reading it.
Brent Kennedy, like myself, is a spiritual seeker who knows that true intelligence is being able to discern the difference between that which is temporary – our physical bodies – and that which is permanent – the soul or spiritual spark animating these bodies. At a time when Brent is recovering from a debilitating stroke, my prayers are with him and his family. Whatever the outcome, however, that eternal spark of consciousness that we have all come to associate with the physical form we call Brent Kennedy will be just that – eternal.
In his Amazon.com review of my modest self-publishing effort, Brent wrote:
Charles Michael Byrd is to be congratulated on weaving what every man and woman ought to be doing in terms of “race consciousness” with the greater morality of the Bhagavad-Gita. The Melungeons, a mixed ethnic group, have lived with, and continue to struggle with, the issues presented and discussed so thoughtfully by Mr. Byrd. All human beings – not simply those who consider themselves “mixed-race” — owe the author a debt of gratitude.
I consider Brent Kennedy a brother not only in the struggle to throw off the shackles of forced racial identity but also in the effort to usher in the larger spiritual awareness on this planet. He once told me – in an email that I constantly kick myself in the butt for having misplaced — that he found a translation of the Bhagavad-Gita in his home, and that it must have been his dear mother’s copy. That revelation initially floored me, but, as all things happen for a reason, I came to realize that Brent was not the only spiritual seeker in his family. For those unfamiliar with the text, the Bhagavad-gita is the main source book on yoga, is the essence of India’s Vedic wisdom and is one of the great spiritual and philosophical classics of the world. As I write this, I am also finishing a second more expanded edition of my book for which I intend to find a mainstream publisher. Please wish me success.
I wish to thank A.D. Powell for agreeing to read this to you today, and, perhaps, I can make the journey to next year’s Union. Thank you all.
When I first got involved with the "multiracial movement" in 1996, I had considered myself to be of German, French and English stock solely. I have since learned much more of my familial origins and now know that my Landrith (Landreth) heritage has its origins in Scotland (traced all the way back to 1070), my Lutz and Nye ancestors are of German stock and somewhere lost in time are non-European ancestors that I have been attempting to verify and prove.
So no, I haven't always known I was Melungeon and I haven't definitively proven it to my satisfaction either. I had previously thought that I had proven the link via my Lutz family line, but was mistaken. However, I believe I may unfortunately be related via Lutz cousins to Walter Plecker. However, I remain convinced of the Melungeon or Brass Ankles, Black Irish/Dutch or some other MGM population ties due to certain physical characteristics in my European surname family lines and their long-time presence in Virginia (Landreth, Nye, and Lutz branches) since the early 1700s before branching out to Illinois, where I was born.
I possess certain physical characteristics such as: Asian Shovel Teeth, Anatolian bump, sleep disorder, unfortunate keloids, etc. My father, his siblings and my grandfather are of a noticeably darker complexion, have striking black hair and tan quite easily in the sun. In fact, when my father was younger and worked on the railroads in Illinois he would darken up significantly from many hours in the sun. That, combined with his black hair, lead some of my mother's family to believe he was mulatto. I tend to favor my mother's Jackson line in phenotype. I am noticeably lighter and have brown hair. When some "multiracial" individuals see my photo online they automatically assume I am solely of European ancestry. Of course, these folks tend to be the ones who endlessly obsess over blood quantum and phenotype.
I believe my great-great-grandmother Minnie May Ehrheart Landrith was of MGM descent via her mother or father. My father, grandfather and great-uncle have all said "we are Cherokee" and named Minnie as the source or claimed she was half-Indian. Minnie's mother was Matilda Nye and her father was Daniel S. Earheart (Ehrhart, Ehrheart). I have confirmed that Daniel's father was not the source of my MGM heritage as he came to the U.S. from Germany. Unfortunately, I have been unable to produce a name for Minnie's grandmother. Of course, her name may have been erased from the family tree out of fear or shame by a prior ancestor if she is the source of my MGM heritage. Either way, I believe that is the link. Of course, as my family spent a long time in Virginia prior to moving Westward, there may be several intermarriages with MGM populations in the family tree that need investigating.
When I first got involved with the "multiracial movement" through IV and Project RACE I was intrigued at the prospect of working toward a goal that would affect my children in a positive way as they are both of multiracial heritage. As I read more on IV, I first learned of the Melungeons and also the Metis, possibly through something you wrote. I then began to read more and search for more Melungeon information online. Far too much of the focus of the "multiracial" movement is biased toward first generation biracial individuals. There are hundreds of years of history of "multiracial" populations in this country that existed before Loving v. Virginia. This realization led me to seek out Melungeon and Metis writers for content on TMA and have since published work by Mike Nassau, Nancy Sparks-Morrison, Tim Hashaw, Jason Adams, Helen Campbell and others.
I admire the fact that so many Melungeons and even Metis, some of whom could very easily blend in with their "white" neighbors are willing to stand up and be counted. They are not afraid to shake their family tree to see what falls out. Their example led me to shed my monoracial identity, and acknowledge my heritage, as fuzzy as some of it may be at present. I believe that in order to move past our nation's unhealthy obsession with "race", we will first have to come to grips with our significant "multiracial" national heritage. This, despite the objections of some of the first generation "biracial"-centric organizations, will involve incorporating that long history into the greater "multiracial" movement. The Multiracial Activist is not only about the children growing up in a post-Loving environment. TMA sees all mixes as part of larger picture and recognizes the significant struggles and strifes that older "multiracial" populations have had to endure.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> Walter Ashby Plecker was the first registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, which records births, marriages and deaths. He accepted the job in 1912. For the next 34 years, he led the effort to purify the white race in Virginia by forcing mixed-race people and Indians to classify themselves as blacks. It amounted to bureaucratic genocide. For 16 years, the New Orleans vital statistics supervisor Naomi Drake refused to issue thousands of birth and death records because families did not consent to a designation of "Negro." Enormous numbers of complaints finally led to her dismissal in 1965.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> http://multiracial.com/site/content/view/38/27/ Powell, A.D. Where Are Louisiana's "Race Flagging" Files"?