“Whiteness” in the U.S. has value. It is no surprise that in a society that has historically oppressed, scorned and demonized “blackness” (as if blacks were almost an untouchable caste), some sub-cultural groups scattered across the nation sought refuge in elaborately constructed “not black” clusters. The United States government, mandated by the Constitution to collect census data that included “race” as a category, created much of the confusion, with shifting classifications over time, using terms like mulatto, octoroon, mestizo, and mixed. Some states also classified those people who were “not white” and not enslaved simply as “free people of color,” which at times included Mexicans and Native Americans.

Clusters of people who were designated “not black,” but historically “not white,” were scattered across the U.S. All of these groups, dubbed by anthropologists and sociologists as “tri-racial isolates,” or “maroons,” are an interesting part of our troubled racialized history and current notions of “race,” “ethnicity,” ancestry, and genetics.

Arch Goins and family, Melungeons from Graysville, Tennessee
Arch Goins and family,<br />Melungeons from Graysville, Tennessee (Wikimedia)

One maroon group that has fascinated both social scientists and genealogists were named by outsiders (as a slur) and they now dub themselves with the same name: Melungeon. Their history and self-constructed folk mythology has been re-visited in recent years due to the advent of modern DNA research.

I first encountered their stories when I came across a book called Almost White by Brewton Berry (1963, McMillan), when I was beginning to explore some of my own family history. Berry described maroon communities, which I pursued an interest in researching, who were given pejorative names like Jackson Whites, Pooles, Brass Ankles, Redbones, Gouldtowners, and Melungeons.

Some like the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina have forcefully rejected “othering” and “whiteness,” and though many tribe members have visible African ancestry, they have fought for their identity as Native Americans.

There are now numerous websites dedicated to the exploration of “race,” racialism, “mixed race” identity, and genetics—the most popular is historian Frank Sweet’s Backintyme site. Sweet has also authored a series of computer animations for YouTube on “the study of racialism,” which explores the data from his site.


The sub-cultures most written about are rural. The Melungeons are found in the hills and dales of the Cumberland Gap area of Appalachia. They have recently been in the news as a result of new DNA research. For example, Travis Loller at the Associated Press writes:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For years, varied and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies.

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. And that report, which was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal, doesn’t sit comfortably with some people who claim Melungeon ancestry. “There were a whole lot of people upset by this study,” lead researcher Roberta Estes said. “They just knew they were Portuguese, or Native American.”

Beginning in the early 1800s, or possibly before, the term Melungeon (meh-LUN’-jun) was applied as a slur to a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border. But it has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mysterious mixed-race ancestry. In recent decades, interest in the origin of the Melungeons has risen dramatically with advances both in DNA research and in the advent of Internet resources that allow individuals to trace their ancestry without digging through dusty archives.

With the advent of digitized and online genealogical data, the huge market for ancestral roots-seeking has grown by leaps and bounds. This explosion led to the founding of numerous Melungeon mailing lists, forums and websites, and people avidly investigating surnames associated with families claiming to be Melungeon. Books were published detailing and re-enforcing the myths, and websites popped up describing “Melungeon Health issues” as further “proof” that they were a distinct ethnic group.

The first major fly in the ointment of Melungeon identity as “not black” descendents came via the research of Paul Heinegg. I got to know Paul and his groundbreaking research because we are both forum managers at AfriGeneas, the largest black genealogy site on the web.

Heinegg is white. His wife is black.

This New York Times article Surprises in the Family Tree describes his background, and details his research.

A retired oil-refinery engineer in Collegeville, Pa., Mr. Heinegg, who is white, has compiled genealogies of 900 mixed-race families who lived freely in slaveholding states in “Free African Americans of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia” and “Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware.” (The information is posted on a Web site, www.freeafricanamericans.com.) Mr. Heinegg’s research offers evidence that most free African-American and biracial families resulted not from a master and his slave, like Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but from a white woman and an African man: slave, freed slave or indentured servant.

“Most of the workers in colonial America in the 17th and early 18th centuries were indentured servants, white and black,” said Dr. John B. Boles, a professor of history at Rice University in Houston and the editor of “The Blackwell Companion to the American South” (2001). Since there was not a clear distinction between slavery and servitude at the time, he said, “biracial camaraderie” often resulted in children. The idea that blacks were property did not harden until around 1715 with the rise of the tobacco economy, by which time there was a small but growing population of free families of color. Dr. Boles estimated that by 1860 there were 250,000 free black or mixed-race individuals.

“Some academics have studied this parallel story of blacks in America, but it hasn’t trickled down to the general population,” Dr. Boles said. “The action is in slavery studies.” Mr. Heinegg is one of the few people to trace the free black families that lived in slave-owning America: some of them rich slave owners, most of them poor farmers and laborers, nearly all of them little known.

Heinegg’s findings challenged Melungeon myths of Turkish, Phoenician, or Portuguese forebears. Using early court records, he has traced “Melungeon” surnames like Goins to black male sexual congress with white indentured females in the early colonial period.

Dr. Berlin said, “There were communities in 17th- and 18th-century America where blacks and whites, both free, of equal rank and shared experiences, were working together, living together, drinking and partying together, and inevitably sleeping together.”

Tracing those communities has not been easy. “People of color are often not identified as such in early records,” Mr. Heinegg said. “For example, an individual might appear in deeds and court records and leave a will without ever mentioning his race.” Sometimes a person’s race can be discerned only by studying the tax assessed on nonwhites. If a man paid the tax on his wife but not himself, Mr. Heinegg said, it meant he was white but she was not.

An added challenge is that racial identity can mutate from free black to white in just a few generations. In my Archer ancestors’ case, it was mixed marriages and a cross-country move: my great-great-grandfather Esquire Collins and his wife, Roxalana Archer, are listed as mulatto in an 1800’s Tennessee census but show up as white on a later Arkansas census. “You crossed over as early as you were able to,” said Antonia Cottrell Martin, a genealogist in New York. Mixed-race families who had difficulty passing sometimes explained dark complexions as coming from an American Indian or Mediterranean ancestry. “It’s what people in the South used to call Carolina Portuguese,” said Dr. DeMarce, who comes from a mixed-race background.

A furor erupted on many Melungeon forums, as the implications of Heinegg’s work became clear.

Now we have the DNA study, which tends to support Heinegg’s work, since it identifies African ancestry in the male lines and European in the female. There is almost no American Indian genetic connection.

Why does anyone even fuss about this? If there were Africans in Melungeon family trees generations ago, and the families are now “white,” who cares?

People do. We are not in Brazil where “race” is constructed differently. We are still harnessed to hypodescent (the one drop rule) of “race.” We still live in a highly racist society, and Melungeons live in conservative Appalachian areas.

Though many Americans pay lip service to the idea of bi-racialism or mixed-race identity, when black is part of the genetic palette, it is rejected. We have a prominent example in Barack Obama. His “white” mother has garnered him not one drop of protection from the constant spewing of right wing bigoted blackness haters.

Remember this? Asked to Declare His Race, Obama Checks ‘Black’ and this, Census Nonsense: Why Barack Obama isn’t black. In the latter piece, John B. Judis, senior editor at The New Republic, underestimates the vituperative blackness hatred still too prevalent in our nation. He also misunderstands cultural identity. Does he really think that if Barack Obama constantly referred to himself as “half-white” it would propel us into a new era of racial tolerance? If so, he is naive.

In examining the Melungeon fear of being somehow trapped into being black by having been “touched by the tar brush“—a British derogatory descriptive phrase for a person of predominantly white European ancestry with real or suspected African or Asian distant ancestry—we can also begin to understand why many “Hispanics” opt to be classed as white (not black or indigenous native) and even those Latinos who physically are three or four shades darker than I am hide behind ethnicity to negate being thrown to the bottom of the racial barrel with black folks.

The Invention of the White Race Vol IIUnless we can educate the majority population into abandoning “whiteness” or at least gaining a better comprehension of its power around which all the rest of us are defined, we will never move forward.

The Invention of the White Race Vols I and II by Theodore W. Allen is a good place to start. White folks need to see that the history of “whiteness” is our “peculiar institution.” That is perhaps a better way to address our social ills than for us to wait until phenotypic differences blur 400 years from now.

Allen addresses Europe, focusing on England and Ireland in the first volume, and moves to the U.S. in the second, examining racism and the manipulated split between white workers and blacks.

Before “whiteness” was invented to sever it from black chattel slavery, the Irish who had been ethnically cleansed from their native soil and brought in chains to the New World were natural allies of blacks. It is clear that the proximity between the two groups bore fruit, in genetically mingled progeny. But with the enactment of harsh Black Codes, those who could evade penalty by migrating to new territories and literally taking to the hills did so as a way of evading the one-drop mandate. They picked up racial aversions along the way, as a method of ingratiating themselves with white neighbors.

With the advent of the academic discipline of Critical Race Studies, there are too many books on my suggested reading list to post here. My students have enjoyed reading Berger.

An incisive debunking of our myths and false assumptions about race.

White Lies: Race and the Myths of WhitenessMaurice Berger grew up hypersensitized to race in the charged environment of New York in the sixties. His father was a prototypical Jewish liberal, his mother a dark-skinned Sephardic Jew who hated black people. Berger himself was one of the few white kids in his Lower East Side housing project.

Berger’s unusual experience—Ωand his determination to search the subject of race for all its meanings–makes White Lies a fresh and often startling book. In it, Berger juxtaposes a series of brilliant short takes about race with a memoir about his boyhood. He recalls his teenage “cultural” crushes on Aretha Franklin and Angela Davis. He listens to blacks telling of awkward racial incidents–being tailed by security guards in department stores, for instance. He acerbically reviews a Polo ad campaign that makes a black model seem to be, literally, a clotheshorse. He revealingly pairs comments on race from the works of Roland Barthes and Toni Morrison, Studs Terkel and James Baldwin. To all of this Berger responds with his own wry, energetic, penetrating sensibility.

Other suggestions for further reading are How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says About Race in America, Karen Brodkin, and How the Irish Became White, by Noel Ignatiev. The textbook I use most frequently to introduce freshmen to the exploration of “race” is Anthropology and Race: The Explanation of Differences, by Eugenia Shanklin.

For those of you who may be interested in the bio-genetics of ancestry and human variation, modern research into the human genome also calls into question our racial classifications based on visual clues (phenotype). Right-wing legislation across the U.S., whether it is “Stop and Frisk” in New York or Arizona’s visual identification of who may or may not be “illegal,” is all predicated on racialized ideations about identity.

This lecture given by Dr. Rick Kittles explains aspects of genomic technology.

Rick Kittles, PhD, received a BS in biology from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1989 and a PhD in biological sciences from George Washington University in 1998. He then helped establish the National Human Genome Center at Howard University. Currently, Kittles is an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), as well as the associate director of the UIC Cancer Center.

Frank Sweet’s site references both Dr. Kittles, and the work of Dr. Mark Shriver at Penn State.

Shriver, who is “white,” discovered that he had “black” ancestry.

Genetic Admixture is not the Same as Appearance

About one-third of White Americans are of between two and twenty percent recent African genetic admixture, as measured by the ancestry-informative markers in their DNA. This comes to about 74 million Americans. And yet, day-to-day experience teaches that virtually all White Americans look, well, White. Some may look more Mediterranean and others may look more Nordic, but very few White Americans have a distinctively African appearance. How can one reconcile DNA measurements with common experience? An anecdote may help illustrate the problem. Look again at the chart of Skin Tone as Function of Afro-European Admixture. Consider one of the graph’s outlier points—a “European American” individual plotted as having 11 percent African genetic admixture. Dr. Shriver, the project team leader, became curious about this individual for two reasons. First, the person’s African genetic admixture was unusually high for someone who self-identified as a member of the U.S. White endogamous group. Second, the sample had been taken from State College, Pennsylvania, the site of Dr. Shriver’s own campus. According to Dr. Shriver:

I had the result for two or three years before I even looked up the ID number of the person whom we tested. I looked at who it was and it was me! I checked myself and the rest of my relatives and tracked it through my family. I never considered that there were any African people in my family. There’s no real variation in my family. The admixture must have been pretty far back. It just so happens that we can detect it with the markers we have. My mom especially stood out as being surprised, maybe because I told her it was coming through her father. She still doesn’t believe it about her family! The part of Pennsylvania where my mother’s father came from is where the Underground Railroad ended. There are several towns right here in Southern Pennsylvania where there are very light-skinned African-American communities that are the remnants of the Underground Railroad.

It seems that Dr. Shriver’s maternal grandfather moved from Pennsylvania to Iowa, then to California, leaving behind in the process most of his ties with his relatives. Dr. Shriver, it turns out, is one of the 74 million White Americans with significant recent African genetic admixture. In a coincidentally similar fashion, Dr. Rick Kittles, Shriver’s collaborator from Howard University in Washington, discovered that he carries the FY-null genetic marker at genome position 1q23. This marker is found in 998 out of every thousand Europeans but found in only one out of thousand Africans. Many of Dr. Kittles’s other ancestry-informative markers tell the same unexpected story. Dr. Kittles is one of the many Black Americans with strong European genetic admixture. And yet, and there is no other way to say this, Dr. Shriver “looks White”, and Dr. Kittles definitely “looks Black.” Why is there such a discrepancy between measured genetic admixture and physical appearance? There is an immediate answer to this question, and a deeper answer. The immediate answer is that many different invisible genes identify continent of ancestry. As of the summer of 2004, the private DNA lab DNAPrint Genomics, Inc. uses up to 175 single nucleotide polymorphisms (markers) in order to analyze a client’s ancestral continents of origin. On the other hand only a handful of genes encode for the few superficial, externally visible features (skin color, hair curliness, etc.) that Americans see as “racially” significant. Parental genes are randomly recombined with each passing generation. It can happen, through sheer chance, that an individual (like Dr. Shriver) can inherit many invisible African DNA markers, but few or none of the handful of alleles that encode for “racial” appearance. Alternatively, a person (like Dr. Kittles) can inherit those few alleles that encode for visible “racial” appearance but otherwise inherit the invisible but ancestrally informative European admixture markers.

Some individuals or small groups slippin’ into whiteness, or simply being counted as a “white” group in the census (like many “Hispanics”), does not change the day-to-day reality in the U.S, of increasingly charged and inflammatory racial rhetoric and violent activity—like the racial profiling and deaths of individuals like Trayvon Martin or Luis Ramirez in Pennsylvania.

The advances we make in the scientific understanding of human variation will do little to change the racialized playing field unless we undermine the socially accepted concept of “whiteness” as a preferred status.

Denise Oliver Velez

Denise Oliver Velez

Feminist, Activist, former Young Lords Party and Black Panther Party member, applied cultural anthropologist.  See her diaries at Daily Kos.