An Overview of the Phenomenon of Mixed Racial Isolates in the United States

An Overview of the Phenomenon of Mixed Racial Isolates in the United States

American Anthropologist
Volume 74, Issue 3 (June 1972)
pages 704–710
DOI: 10.1525/aa.1972.74.3.02a00340

Calvin L. Beale
Economic Research Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture

The subject of the paper is population groups of real or alleged tri-racial origin—Indian, White, and Negro. There is a review of the emergence of such groups in American history, their conflicts with public authorities, and their recognition by researchers. The past importance of separate schools as a boundary maintenance mechanism is discussed, with emphasis on the declining persistence of such schools today. The role of the church as the typical remaining group institution is noted. Mention is made of the decreasing proportion of endogamous marriages in recent times. The essentially rural nature of these racial isolates is pointed out, and the general societal trend of rural depopulation is stated to be affecting their size and continued existence. A suggested list of research needs is offered.

In About 1890, a young Tennessee woman asked a state legislator, “Please tell me what is a Malungeon?” “A Malungeon” said he, “isn’t a nigger, and he isn’t an Indian, and he isn’t a White man. God only knows what he is. I should call him a Democrat, only he always votes the Republican ticket” (Drumgoole 1891:473).

The young woman, Will Allen Drumgoole, soon sought out the Melungeons in remote Hancock County and lived with them for awhile to determine for herself what they were. Afterward, in the space of a ten page article, she described them as “shiftless,” “idle,” “illiterate,” “thieving,” “defiant,” “distillers of brandy,” “lawless,” “close,” “rogues,” “suspicious,” “inhospitable,” “untruthful,” “cowardly,” “sneaky,” “exceedingly immoral,” and “unforgiving.” She also spoke of their “cupidity and cruelty,” and ended her work by concluding, “The most than can be said of one of them is, ‘He is a Malungeon,’ a synonym for all that is doubtful and mysterious-and unclean” (Drumgoole 1891:479). Miss Drumgoole was essentially a sympathetic observer.

The existence of mixed racial populations that constitute a distinctive segment of society is not unique to the United States needless to say. But this nation must rank near the top in the number of such communities and in their general public obscurity. I refer in particular to groups of real or alleged White-Indian-Negro mixtures (such as the Melungeons) who are not tribally affiliated or traceable with historical continuity to a particular tribe. It is also logical to include a few groups of White-Negro origin that lack the Indian component. The South in particular is rich in such population strains, with all states except Arkansas and Oklahoma having such groups at present or within the twentieth century. (And I would not be surprised to be contradicted on my exception of those two states.)…

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