In the Shadows of the Blue Ridges: Portrait of a Melungeon

In the Shadows of the Blue Ridges
Portrait of a Melungeon

by Helen Campbell
April/May 2001

I can still clearly remember my grandmother, Estelle Baber, taking the portrait of “Baber” out of the locked cedar chest in her bedroom. She would tell me the man in the portrait was “Baber.” He was a very handsome man with dark skin and Caucasian features. He had a very long white beard and was wearing a suit with an unusual print of shirt that reminded me of Indian pattern. She would tell me that “colored folks”, had it much worse than “white folk.” Then she would put the portrait back into the locked cedar chest, not on the wall, like most family’s do with family pictures. She used to call me her “Indian baby” when I would visit her in a coal mining camp in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. I grew up in an urban city in Pennsylvania and would stay my summers with my grandmother in the small coal-mining town. The crowded and raucous city was quite hot during the summertime and the Appalachian Mountain air was superior to that of the city. Those summers are the best memories of my childhood.

James R. Baber
James R. Baber

Grandma said her community used to be a segregated coal mining camp before the civil rights movement. I don’t remember those days, when I went to school all people, no matter what color, went to the same schools. Grandma said, “the white folks” would live in the bottom row houses and the “colored folk” lived in the upper rows of houses. The upper row houses were on the high steep hills. Each had their own church and school, separate, one for the “white folk,” one for the “colored folk.” Most of the African Americans left the mining camp and moved elsewhere to find a living during the late fifties and early sixties. The coal mining industry was slowing down during this time, for air pollution was a problem in the urban cities. Some people were able to get a job working in the glass bottle industry located in the area. Some migrated to Ohio to work in factories. Leaving behind their memories, both good and bad.

Then one day my grandma gave the portrait of “Baber” to my mother. My mother placed the portrait on our dining room wall. When anyone asked who he was, she would reply, “Baber” and that he was an Indian, who came from India. My mother said her grandmother told her that “Baber” spoke with an English accent. He had his leg injured in an accident and they had to amputate the lower part of his leg. He made himself a special wooden leg to get around.

My mother told me that “Baber” had something that was passed on to him from his father, but it became lost during the Civil War. She said, whatever it was, they say, it came from India. The Union Army was heard coming and the people hid their most valuable things for fear of being robbed by the soldiers. After the encampment left the area, the landscape of trees were changed forever.

When friends would visit they would ask who was in the portrait and we would say “Baber” from India, he’s an Indian. Nothing else, not a first name or birth date or death date. Not even a clue as to where he lived and died or what he did during his lifetime. In 1973 my mother heard that her cousin was writing a book about our “Baber” history. That is about all I ever knew of my Baber’s family history while growing up. I grew up and had a family of my own. When my children would go to their grandma’s house and ask who was in the portrait, we would tell them “Baber” from India, he was an Indian. I asked my mother if I could put “Baber” on my living room wall. She said yes. People would ask who he was and we would repeat the same story over again. After looking at “Baber” for thirty- five years, I did wonder why nobody knew his first name or anything else much about him, no birth or death date known, just always\ “Baber.” The entire background and culture of this man was missing and I just had a desire to find out who he really was and where he came from.

The Baber Family Cemetery

On a breezy spring day of March 1996, I convinced my uncle to take my mother and myself to the Baber Family Cemetery located on the “old Baber home place.” Its high in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, in a town named Tioga. Tioga is located in Nicholas County and is isolated because of its breathtaking high mountains and majestic ridges. The Baber Family Cemetery was right off the main road. The cemetery was remarkably well kept and had flowers growing in stone pottery next to the hea\ dstones. There was a tall headstone for “Baber” that read, James R. Baber 1832-1903. Beside him was Martha Baber, his wife. There was also a Brooks Baber and beside him was Elizabeth Baber, his wife. My uncle and mother told me they were their grandparents, Lizz and Brooks Baber. There were headstones for Arden Baber, Lester Baber, Albert Baber and Verna Bragg, Willlie Legg and others.

Brooks Baber built the original home but it had been torn down and a new one took its place. I saw remnants of a sawmill and other farm buildings scattered about. There was a large vegetable garden, with herbs, flowers and grapevines. Brooks Baber built and owned a sawmill and was a carpenter for a living. He was such a great craftsman, he made his own violin and they said he was quite gifted at music. I had finally found where my “Baber” lived and died and now I had a name, James R. Baber, to go with his portrait.

Charleston, West Virginia

With the names and dates revealed, I went back to my urban life and wrote to the Charleston Culture History to request the death certificates of James R. Baber, Brooks Baber and Elizabeth Baber and Martha Baber. I received a letter stating the following:

    We received your recent request for information from our holdings. Enclosed are death certificates for Vincent Brooks Baber, and for Elizabeth Florence Baber. I can find no record of the death of James R. Baber who died in Nicholas County in 1903. A history of the Baber family written by Ada Flynn in 1973 makes no mention of his death, making me believe there has never been a written record of his death. I have taken the liberty of sending you extract from that book dealing with the Vincent Brooks Baber descendants. I might mention also, that Katerine Baber (sister of James Reed Baber) is my great grandmother, she married my great grandfather, Samuel Bailey. Signed James Bailey

I was quite baffled when I read the letter and the extracts from the book “Baber” by Ada Spencer Flynn, published in 1973, by Western Carolina University Press, Cullowhee, North Carolina. Amid the extracts was a picture of James Reed Baber and Martha Baber. My name was in the book too. All these years, I thought, and I have yet to see a copy of the book and thought it did not exist. I asked my aunts and mother about the book. They said they had never seen it before. They said heard their cousin wrote that our Baber ancestor line came from Sir John Baber, the Physician to the King Charles and that they came to America from India.

I telephoned the Charleston Library and inquired about the Babers in the East Indies. I was told that most recent research revealed that the Baber line could be traced to the West Indies. The gentleman on the phone suggested that I visit Charleston to further the study of the records for genealogy and history.

I was unable to travel, but I did send a request to the Charleston Culture Center for more information on the Baber family. I requested censuses for James R. Baber for the years of 1870 and 1880. The 1880 census states that James R. Baber was a white male, age 48, a farmer born in Virginia. The 1870 census states James is a white male, age 38, a farmer, and born in Virginia. James states his mother and father was born in Virginia. He and his wife Martha lived in Union Township, Kanawha County, Virginia. Their children attended school and could read and write.

Finding the marriage certificate for James R. Baber and Martha (Bailey) Baber proved to be most helpful. James stated that he was born in Buckingham County, Virginia. He said was the son of Castillo Baber and Martha Baber. I sent requests for census records for Castillo Baber for the years 1840 and 1870. In the year 1840, Castillo owned property in Union Township, in Sissonsville, a place near Charleston, West Virginia. He was a farmer and owned one slave and various livestock. The 1870 Kanawha County census states that Castillo was a white male, age 66, born in Virginia, and a farmer. Castillo states his mother and father was born in Virginia.

The Union Township District was located in Kanawha County and was on the Kanawha River, west of Charleston and on the north side of the river adjoining Poca, Elk and Charleston Districts. Two-mile spring is located west of Charleston and in Union Township. During the Civil War, in the year of 1861, General Wise came into the Union Township District with a substantial power of the Confederate Army. The Confederate forces encamped in the valley and used the Two-mile Creek. They occupied the property owned by Dr. Patrick and Mr. A. Littlepage. Two-Mile Creek, a spring, was the main source of fresh water for the Confederate soldiers and their horses.

When the Union Army heard of the Confederate encampment, they sent General J. D. Cox to force General Wise and his forces to retreat from their position in the Kanawha Valley. The Union Army soldiers numbering in the thousands, were covered with dust, weary and worn out from their long march into the Kanawha Valley. The Two-Mile Creek was a welcomed sight to General Cox and his soldiers. During the combat both the Union and the Confederate armies used Two-Mile Creek as a source of water. During the Civil War many southern states had their towns burnt. My request to Buckingham County, Virginia for the birth record of James Baber and Castillo Baber were sent back. Apparently the vital records were destroyed in a fire during the Civil War.

Melungeon

I had heard of the word Melungeon once in the newspaper. The article was about isolated groups of mixed race people living on the ridges in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee in the Appalachian Mountains. The group featured in the news clipping was about West Virginia’s isolated mixed race of people living on Chestnut Ridge in Barbour County, West Virginia. Some people believe the group is descendants of Portuguese. Some say they are descended from a mixture of Indians and survivors of Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colony. They have been living on the ridge for more than two hundred years. Since the first census of 1790, they have been described as white, black, red, mulatto, free colored, dark, American Guinea, red African and Indian. In modern day Chestnut ridge, some of the people’s physical features are white-Indian some black-Indian and still others white, black and Indian. Some have distinctly darker skin but blue eyes while others appear almost oriental. Others are blond and almost Scandinavian. I wondered who were the Melungeons in the southeast and if my “Baber” could possibly be a Melungeon from Virginia.

A Man from Wise, Virginia

In 1996, I read in the National Genealogy Society Newsletter, about a newly acquired book named “The Melungeons: The Resurrection of A Proud People, An Untold Story Of Ethnic Cleansing in America” by N. Brent Kennedy, Mercer University Press, First Edition, 1994. I borrowed the book through the National Genealogy Society’s Library loan service, in Virginia.

Brent Kennedy, a man living in Wise, Virginia, decided to write a book after he became seriously ill in 1988, with a Mediterranean disease. He was told his ethnic origin was Scot Irishman and German. He wondered how a Mediterranean disease could afflict him, a white European man? Publishing his theories and family’s genealogy brought him unsympathetic criticism, from his family members, scholars and strangers. Brent Kennedy’s theories on the ethic origins of his people, the Melungeons, are that they are remnants from sixteenth century Turkish, Portuguese, Spanish, Arab and Jewish settlers, slaves, and captives that intermarried with the Native American Nations and lived throughout the Southeast.

He wrote that his people, the Melungeons, were made to move off their lands, denied their rights to vote and was forced into isolation and almost exterminated. All these things gradually concealed his people’s very existence. After centuries of trying to blend in with their white neighbors, the Melungeons lost their heritage, culture, and even their religion. But his family’s distinct Melungeon physical features remained, along with the Mediterranean diseases.

After reading the book, I realized that my Baber family seemed to fit somewhere into his theories. His family sounded a lot likes mine in many ways. Some of my Baber family has dark skin, some have red skin and yet others white skin. The eyes of some of the Babers are gray, some blue, and brown. Most are blond and blue eyed and has fair skin. My mother’s aunt has oriental features. And then there is the lack of family history and the fact of missing family photos.

But it wasn’t his theories or family’s genealogy that gripped my spirit, it was his emotions about how he felt about his mother and father’s people, himself and the future his own family. His feelings of how a people were deprived of their very sense of self. He wrote ” I understand the fears of those within the family, after all, such fear was unavoidable legacy of Melungeon families. To hide our shame, as it were, we were conditioned to feel guilt over our very being as if our mere existence was somehow an affront to common decency. I do not exaggerate.” He wrote, “the shame was at the most basic level, the shame of being alive.”

Brent Kennedy wished that his book would serve as an inspiration for others that may be ready to acknowledge and remember the lives of those who preceded them, no matter what their ethnic origins are. I too, have experienced the same loss of my heritage and my cultures and even my religion. I did understand many of his words. Maybe my “Baber” was a Melungeon.

America’s Buckingham

By way of the Internet, I was able to further my research in Buckingham County, despite the fact that the records had been burnt. I traced Castillo Baber to a man, Isaac Baber living in Buckingham County, Virginia in 1810. I contacted a Baber living near the University of Virginia, where some of the Buckingham Baber records can be found at the Alderman Library.

Over the years I have collected a lot of conflicting wills and family group sheets from various sources. But for sure, Castillo Baber was living in Buckingham in 1820 and 1830, according to the censuses from that time. He moved to Kanawha County, Virginia sometime between the birth of his son, James Baber’s in 1832 and 1840. Castillo used the initials C. A. Baber on the 1820 and 1830 Buckingham County, Virginia censuses. It appears that there was once a plantation in Buckingham County that was once owned by an Englishman named Robert Baber. The connection to this Robert is still unclear. Further research and study will be needed. Why Castillo Baber left Buckingham is still a mystery at this time

The Reign of Walter Plecker 1912-1959

I started reading The Melungeon Home Page. Darlene Wilson is a historian uncovering the underhanded work of Walter Plecker. Walter Plecker was appointed Virginia’s Registrar of Vital Statistics in 1912. Some people say it was he that almost exterminated the Melungeon people and other people of mixed ancestry. Walter Plecker retired from the Vital Statistics in 1946 and was replaced by a woman that carried out his policies until 1959.

I’ve written to her about my Babers in Charleston, West Virginia after reading her work online. Darlene Wilson told me of how Walter made great use of the 1830 and 1840 censuses information. If a person were marked as Mulatto then he used the same designation for their offspring, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great great grandchildren and so on. She said that Walter Plecker didn’t bother to compare skin tones, in fact, he did not actually see any of the persons whose certificates he changed. He just assumed that a “little drop” was sufficient to mark the entire line as not white. Mr. Plecker’s objective wasn’t genealogy but race based discrimination. He was determined to mark all Melungeons as non-white.

On her page, there is a letter written by Walter Plecker to a doctor in Charleston, where many of my Baber family once lived. I remember the day I was asking my mother where her father was born because I could not locate a birth record for him. She read on the back of her birth certificate that her father was born in Mohawk, West Virginia and she read her mother’s name and place of birth, Tioga, West Virginia. I wrote to Darlene Wilson to ask if this was usual, having a genealogy on the back of a birth certificate from West Virginia. She replied it was normal for Walter Plecker to “mark” the back of certificates. Walter Plecker sent a warning to be attached to the backs of birth or death certificates of those believed to be incorrectly recorded as to color or race. Walter Plecker was determined to mark all Melungeons as non-white so they could not vote or go to school or have a job.

Virginia passed a law in 1924 it was an act to Preserve Racial Integrity.” This law forbids Caucasians and people of color from matrimony. It became a felony for any person purposely or willfully to make a registration certificate false regarding to color or race. If a person married another race the person could be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for one year. No marriage license was granted until the clerk or deputy clerk had reasonable guarantee that the statements as to color of both man and woman were correct. It was unlawful for any white person to marry with admixture of black and American Indian. The term white person applied to those who had no trace what so ever of any blood other than Caucasian. People that had one sixteenth or less of the blood of American Indian and had no other non-Caucasian blood, was considered white. The State of Virginia Register of Vital Statistics prepared a form so that the racial composition of person as Caucasian, Negro, Mongolian, American Indian, Asiatic Indians, Malay or any mixture to be recorded on the registration certificate. The certificates written for each person, in every district was forwarded to the state registration for Walter Placer’s files. Another copy was to be kept on file by the local register.

1925 Charleston, West Virginia

Warning to Dr. Raver, Charleston, WV from Walter Plecker:

    Virginia Health Bulletin, November 1925 Dr Carl F. Raver, Charleston, W. Va. — In West Virginia there are many Negroes who are happy and prosperous, frequently owning their own homes and driving their own automobiles. The idea of marriage between whites and Negroes is abhorrent. During slave days it no doubt was advantageous, from a commercial standpoint, to produce as many offspring of Negro parentage as possible and many slave owners must have encouraged the mixing of the races. This produced the mulatto. Now it is this mulatto, or his offspring, that is causing all the trouble. They do not wish to be classed as Negroes and, if light enough in color, try to pass as white and marry into white families. Every possible means should be used to prevent this. The strongest weapon is public opinion. Public opinion allowed the mulatto to become started as an institution. It condoned the situation.

Darlene Wilson said that records were highly charged political tools. Census takers were political hires and white designation on census reports opened the world of possibilities of land ownership and acceptance.

My grandmother sold her land in Tioga, high in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, to escape the reign of Walter Plecker. It was common practice for Melungeons to go from one town to another during Walter Plecker’s days. Some were considered “free colored” and that meant you were a second class citizen with few civil rights. Having to move from town to town to just to pass as white made the Melungeons lose their heritage culture. You were considered to be low class or worse, no class.

This has been my own Melungeon legacy passed down over the decades. Each generation is forced into trying to conceal our Melungeon heritage. Some people don’t wish to know their true heritage. The generation that had to endure the near extinction of the Melungeons in the early decades of the 1900’s still experiences the distressing memories of those times.

That’s what Grandma meant when she said “color folk” have a much worse life than “white” folk. That’s why “Baber” was locked in the darkness of the cedar chest in her bedroom and not proudly displayed on the walls of her home in the mining camp. She had to lock “Baber” in the darkness of the cedar chest in order to survive the racial discrimination times of her days.

Those dark days have ended for my “Baber.” James Reed Baber was born in the shadows of the Blue ridges of Buckingham County, Virginia. He will be remembered and honored through the times, no matter what his ethnic origins may be. Now my Baber has a new Melungeon legacy to pass on to future generations. We will begin our new legacy by preserving what we have from our past, for all to see.

The Melungeon Registry

What happened to the Melungeons over the centuries in the past is most important to remember not our physical features. For spiritual and cultural reasons, my family is enrolled with the Melungeon Registry. The Wise Historical, in Wise, Virginia, sponsors the Melungeon Registry. The Wise Historical Society is a not-for-profit organization. Any person with any degree of Melungeon heritage may enroll. I did so to preserve our Baber’s Melungeon heritage and culture.

“We truly are one big human family, and the Melungeons a sixteenth century southeastern people of so called “mysterious origin” provide the human linkages that have quietly but undeniably linked all Americans, white, black, red, yellow, and brown, together.” N. Brent Kennedy April 24, 1998


Copyright © 2001 The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.

One comment

  1. Thank you for publishing this. I recently offended a person, who described herself as “mixed”, by using the term Melungeon. I had just received a “Predicted relationship: 4th Cousins” on Ancestry with derekvt1who had Europe West, Cameroon/Congo, Benin/Togo, Ireland/Scotland/WalesTrace Regions: Senegal, Scandinavia, Great Britain, Nigeria, Africa Southeastern Bantu, Ivory Coast/Ghana, Asia South, Finland/Northwest Russia, Caucasus, European Jewish, Africa North, Polynesia, Mali. She called me a few days later and asked for his ID. I shared it and that of another relative with a similar background. She was curious as to how I, a Caucasian, was a cousin to “mixed Race” people. I was raised in Lewis County, West Virginia, I have many relatives and acquaintances that could have been called Melungeon but they were known as “white.” It is a shame that we still ask ethnic origins on our governmental forms. I think that I might start marking other.

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