Mixing in the Mountains

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, History, Social Science, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2011-01-01 04:20Z by Steven

Mixing in the Mountains

Southern Cultures
Volume 3, Issue 4 (Winter 1997)
pages 25-35

John Shelton Reed, William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for Research in Social Science
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

One January day in 1996, I picked up the Wall Street Journal to find a story headlined “Rural County Balks at Joining Global Village.” It told about Hancock County, Tennessee, which straddles the Clinch River in the ridges hard up against the Cumberland Gap, where Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee meet.

This is a county that has lost a third of its 1950 population, which was only ten thousand to begin with. A third of those left are on welfare, and half of those with jobs have to leave the county to work. The only town is Sneedville, population 1300, which has no movie theater, no hospital, no dry cleaner, no supermarket, and no department store.

I read this story with a good deal of interest because the nearest city of any consequence is my hometown of Kingsport, thirty-five miles from Sneedville as the crow flies, but an hour and a half on mountain roads. (If you don’t accept my premise that Kingsport is a city of consequence, Knoxville’s a little further from Sneedville, in the opposite direction.)

The burden of the article was that many of Hancock County’s citizens are indifferent to the state of Tennessee’s desire to hook them up to the information superhighway—a job that will take some doing, especially for the one household in six that doesn’t have a telephone. The Journal quoted several Hancock Countians to the effect that they didn’t see the point. The reporter observed that the county offers “safe, friendly ways, pristine rivers, unspoiled forests and mountain views,” and that many residents simply “like things the way they are.”

So far a typical hillbilly-stereotype story. But the sentence that really got my attention was this: “Many families here belong to a hundred or so Melungeon clans of Portuguese and American Indian descent, who tend to be suspicious of change and have a history of self-reliance.”…

…Anyway, the Melungeons’ problems, historically, haven’t been due to their American Indian heritage. Like the South’s other triracial groups, they have been ostracized and discriminated against because their neighbors suspected that they were, as one told Miss Dromgoole, “Portuguese niggers.” (Do not imagine that the absence of racial diversity in the mountains means the absence of racial prejudice.) Until recently most Melungeons have vociferously denied any African American connection and have simply refused to accept the attendant legal restrictions. As one mother told Brewton Berry, “I’d sooner my chilluns grow up ig’nant like monkeys than send ’em to that nigger school.” But those neighbors were probably right: DeMarce has now established clear lines from several Melungeon families back to eighteenth-century free black families in Virginia and the Carolinas…

…In her pioneering article on the Melungeons, Miss Dromgoole reveals an interesting misconception: “a race of Mulattoes cannot exist as these Melungeons have existed,” she wrote. “The Negro race goes from Mulattoes to quadroons, from quadroons to octoroons and there it stops. The octoroon women bear no children. Think about that: “Octoroon women bear no children.” Like mules. Who knows how many genteel southern white women held that comforting belief-comforting, that is, to one who accepted the “one drop” rule of racial identification that was enshrined in the laws of many states. But in one sense Miss Dromgoole was right. Not only is there no word for people with one black great-great-grandparent, it’s almost true, sociologically speaking, that there are no such people…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , ,