Why Were The Melungeons Surprised By Their African Roots?

Yesterday, as we finished recapping our respective workdays over a glass of wine, S. asked me if I’d seen the story  on the web about the Melungeon people who had taken a DNA test to trace their forebears. “I have no idea who told these people that they were part Portuguese. Years ago,” I continued, “wandering the stacks of the library at Emory as an undergraduate, I’d stumbled across a section of books, monographs and studies dedicated to ethnic phenotypes. It was the first time I’d ever heard of the Melungeons. And at that time, and in every instance since, whether it was Ebony Magazine or something on the internet, every account I’d ever read, whether it was an expert opinion or anecdotal reminiscence, had stated without equivocation that the Melungeons were descended from Caucasians, Native Americans, and Africans.”

In other words, they had the same racial background as many of my African American friends do today.

Back in South Carolina, where I grew up, the insular hamlets whose inbred inhabitants were descended from racially mixed backgrounds were known as “brass ankle” communities. My mother would label someone a “brass ankle” as readily as you would say someone is Scottish or Italian. It was one of the many tri-racial isolate groups some sociologists took to classifying as Mestees, a derivative of the Spanish word “mestizo”. The impetus for all of these groups of people to claim an exotic reason for having skin that was not white was to avoid by any means necessary the social stigma and the government mandated legal restraints associated with being black in segregated America.


There are in South Carolina today fully five thousand people—perhaps even ten thousand—who do not fit into the biracial caste system upon which the state’s whole social structure is built. These out-castes insist that they are white, and they claim the privileges and courtesies of white people. Some of them, if pressed, will not deny a strain of Indian, though they take no pride in the fact; and most of them are offended even at that suggestion. The dominant whites, on the other hand, are convinced that there is a trace of Negro blood in them and, on the theory that “one drop of Negro blood makes one a Negro,” are reluctant to accept them and regard their claim to white status with various and mixed emotions, ranging from amusement to horror.

This failure of a sizable group of people to fit into the social system creates many problems. It is, in fact, a threat to the whole structure, undermining the popular faith that the system functions adequately and will continue to function forever.

The Mestizos of South Carolina   Brewton Berry

Back when I was a teenager, working at one of my family’s dry cleaning stores in Orangeburg, South Carolina, I used to wait on an older customer who was tall and slim, with a distinctive ruddy, dark reddish skintone, a nose like a hawk’s beak and a shock of almost straight coarse black hair he kept neatly trimmed. It was his stiff demeanor and lack of social grace, though, that prompted me to ask my father who he was. It turned out that the man was employed by the same government agency where my father used to work before going into business, so he knew quite a lot about the man., including the fact that he lived off away from town, among his own people, who were supposed to be descendants of an old Indian tribe.  

“He looks black to me,” I said, surmising from my experiences growing up in the racially obsessed South that his vaguely European influenced features didn't look Indian enough to escape being classified as an African American. My father replied instantly, “Just don’t tell him that.”   

Melungeons would not send their children to black schools and they were not allowed in the white schools, so the Tennessee Department of Education had "Indian" schools for them. This led to almost total illiteracy among Melungeons. They would not have black teachers and white teachers would not teach in their schools, so they had to depend on the few Melungeons who had learned to read at the Presbyterian Mission School in Vardy. None of their teachers had been to high school. In Tennessee until the 1950's and 60's, Melungeons were usually classified as black for marriage, white for voting and Indian for education.

The Melungeons – A Mixed Race People    French Creole.com

So should the Melungeons be embarrassed or ashamed of the discovery, through DNA testing, that some of their forbears were in fact African men? I don’ think so. I do think that they would have been better off as a group educationally and financially if they could have publicly accepted the idea of having African heritage from the beginning, but I can certainly understand, given the horrors slavery, Redemption, Jim Crow, and "separate but equal" produced for black Americans, the fanatical compunction of the Melungeons to simply proclaim that they were something else.  

Even though interracial marriage is at an all-time high, and the number of mixed race children and adults in our society has risen to the point where they are no longer statistical anomalies, there is still quite a bit of stigma associated with being black in America.

Just ask the current president of the United States if you don’t believe me.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
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A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
Strange Maps
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  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
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Michio Kaku: Genetic and digital immortality are within reach

Technology may soon grant us immortality, in a sense. Here's how.

  • Through the Connectome Project we may soon be able to map the pathways of the entire human brain, including memories, and create computer programs that evoke the person the digitization is stemmed from.
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