Mixing in the Mountains

By Reed, John Shelton | Southern Cultures, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Mixing in the Mountains


Reed, John Shelton, Southern Cultures


One January day in 1996,(1) I picked up the Wall Street Journal to find a story headlined "Rural County Balks at Joining Global Village."(2) 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."

Now, I picture the typical Wall Street Journal reader as a harried commuter on the Long Island Railroad, and I wondered what in the world he made of that. What's this "Melungeon" business? And what are Portuguese doing up those remote east Tennessee hollers? You might well ask.

Ethnic diversity is not what comes immediately to mind when we think of the American South--perhaps especially not when we think of the southern mountains. The historian George Tindall once characterized the South as "the biggest single WASP nest this side of the Atlantic," and, in fact, all of the U.S. counties where over half the inhabitants claim only English ancestry are in the Kentucky hills (not far from Sneedville, actually).(3) But there has been more diversity in the South than many people suppose. Intermixed with these British whites, West African blacks, and the scattered remains of the South's American Indian population, there are these odd ... enclaves. They're mostly small, but there are a lot of them. Louisiana has its Creoles and Cajuns, of course, but also pockets of Hungarians and Canary Islanders. Texas has its well-known German settlements, but also counties settled by Czechs and Poles. You'll find Greeks in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Mississippi has Chinese in the Delta and Lebanese here and there. There are Italians in former truck-farming colonies in Louisiana, Arkansas, and eastern North Carolina. And there are Druse in east Tennessee, not far from Sneedville.

Few of these exotic groups have been as little known or poorly understood as the South's so-called "little races."(4) Every southern state except Arkansas and Oklahoma has at least one group like the Red Bones of Louisiana and Texas, the Turks and Brass Ankles of South Carolina, the Issues of Virginia, the Lumbee and Haliwa and so-called Cubans of North Carolina, or the Cajans of Alabama. The 1950 census identified over twenty of these populations in the South, numbering from a few hundred to a few thousand, often isolated in swamps or mountain coves.(5)

The Melungeons are one of the largest of these groups. …

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