The best books on Melungeons and their history

Who am I?

I first heard about Melungeons when a babysitter told me they would “git” me if I didn’t behave.  She said they lived in caves outside our East Tennessee town and had six fingers on each hand.  I consigned these creatures to myth and nightmares, until a cousin informed me that some of our shared ancestors were Melungeons and showed me scars from the removal of his extra thumbs.  For the next ten years I visited sites related to Melungeons and interviewed many who claimed Melungeon ancestry, running DNA tests on some. This research yielded my memoir Kinfolks: Falling Off The Family Tree and my historical novel Washed In The Blood.

I wrote...

Washed in the Blood

By Lisa Alther,

Book cover of Washed in the Blood

What is my book about?

The Southeast was not a barren wilderness when the British arrived at Jamestown. It was already inhabited by Native Americans, French, Spaniards, Portuguese, Africans, and others. Extensive racial mixing there produced offspring who often became “British” when their complexions allowed it.

Washed In the Blood features three linked generations of such people. Diego Martin arrives in the Southeast in 1567 as a hog drover with a Spanish exploring party. His leader abandons him to the wilderness, where natives rescue him. In the 19th century, a descendant of Diego’s marries a Quaker from Philadelphia, who runs a school for mountain children. By the 1920s Diego’s descendants have split: The merchants in town deny any kinship to their darker cousins on Mulatto Bald. Will Martin from the Bald falls in love with a town girl, both unaware they are cousins. Reinventing themselves as white citizens in a new industrial town, they are appalled when Will’s illegitimate, dark-complexioned son arrives at their doorstep and falls in love with their daughter.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Almost White: A Study of Certain Racial Hybrids in the Eastern United States

Why did I love this book?

This pioneering 1963 classic is the first book I ever read that describes some of the 200 groups of “mestizos” (Berry’s term) living in the eastern United States, with names like the Brass Ankles, the Red Bones, the Melungeons, the Lumbees. It prodded me to start thinking about the whole issue of race and how it is constructed – and what happens to the “marginal” people (another Berry term) who don’t fit into the rigid categories of African, European, Asian, or Native American. 

By Brewton Berry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Almost White as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work.

Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public. To ensure a quality reading experience, this work has been…

Book cover of The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People: An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America

Why did I love this book?

In this 1994 cri de coeur Brent Kennedy discusses the Melungeon branches of his family tree.  One branch is on my family tree, twice since my paternal grandparents were cousins. This book provided my first hint that my own family tree harbored some mysterious ancestors. It launched me on a ten-year quest to discover who the Melungeons were, where they came from, and whether or not my ancestors had been among them. The book also launched an Appalachian liberation movement of sorts, as many who had been taught to conceal their racially mixed ancestry rushed to claim it – and proclaim it.

By N. Brent Kennedy, Robyn Vaughan Kennedy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Melungeons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America.

Book cover of Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia

Why did I love this book?

This is the most thorough compendium yet of the available information about Melungeons.  Winkler covers the little that is known about Melungeon history, as well as exploring the many origin myths and theories – of descent from shipwrecked Potuguese sailors, from deserters from DeSoto’s exploring expedition, from survivors of Juan Pardo’s torched wilderness forts, etc.  He also describes associated mixed race groups and relates some of the scientific efforts to pin down the genesis of the Melungeons.

By Wayne Winkler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Walking Toward the Sunset as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Walking toward the Sunset is a historical examination of the Melungeons, a mixed-race group predominantly in southern Appalachia. Author Wayne Winkler reviews theories about the Melungeons, compares the Melungeons with other mixed-race groups, and incorporates the latest scientific research to present a comprehensive portrait. In his telling portrait, Winkler examines the history of the Melungeons and the ongoing controversy surrounding their mysterious origins. Employing historical records, news reports over almost two centuries, and personal interviews, Winkler tells the fascinating story of a people who did not fit the rigid racial categories of American society. Along the way, Winkler recounts the…

Book cover of Windows on the Past: The Cultural Heritage of Vardy

Why did I love this book?

Overbay grew up at the epicenter of Melungeon settlement in Hancock County, Tennessee. She attended the Vardy school, built for Melungeon children (who as descendants of “free people of color” weren’t allowed to attend public schools) by Presbyterian missionaries. This state-of-the-art school far surpassed in its facilities and offerings those of the local public schools, and it turned out several generations of accomplished young people. This book includes riveting oral histories about daily life in a Melungeon community and about the educational theories that inspired those who directed the school.

By DruAnna Williams Overbay,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Windows on the Past as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Windows on the Past: The Cultural History of Vardy features oral histories and images of Melungeon daily life such as church gatherings and family activities by focusing on the Vardy Community School, a Presbyterian mission school, and the Vardy Community Church. A vivid description of the community and its historical buildings is included as the interviewees discuss the classroom environment and teaching activities within the school. The impact of the school's staff and the spiritual and community leaders is also emphasized. Relative to these stories is the Vardy Community Historical Society, Inc., a group formed to restore Vardy landmarks and…

Book cover of The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America

Why did I love this book?

This book features a trio of true-life stories from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries about families whose ancestors were enslaved but who, by a variety of stratagems, managed to cross the color line and become “white” in the eyes of others – and eventually in the eyes of their own descendants. These stories illustrated for me the actual permeability of racial categories, hinging largely on one’s physical appearance and possessions.  In other words, the lighter your skin and the larger your bank account, the greater the possibility that others will allow you to be whoever you say you are.

By Daniel J. Sharfstein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Invisible Line as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"An astonishingly detailed rendering of the variety and complexity of racial experience in an evolving national culture."
-The New York Times Book Review

In the Obama era, as Americans confront the enduring significance of race and heritage, this multigenerational account of family secrets promises to spark debate across the country. Daniel J. Sharfstein's sweeping history moves from eighteenth-century South Carolina to twentieth-century Washington, D.C., unraveling the stories of three families who represent the complexity of race in America. Identifying first as people of color and later as whites, the families provide a lens through which to examine how people thought…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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