I first heard about them in the early 70s, when I hung out with people who could score status points among other folksingers by sidling up to obscure groups who were really, really authentic. If you had a song that was taught to you by a Melungeon, or a Redbone, everyone would marvel at what a great song it was, with very serious faces. Most things that came to the coffee houses in that way completely sucked, BTW, and I can now see from YouTube and Wikipedia that precisely none were authentic anyway.
The story becomes interesting because of what it reveals about the larger culture. These were people who hotly denied being in any way Negro or African. They were Portuguese, or Indian, or Absolutely Anything But That, and for good reason, because the legal and cultural consequences of being black in even the smallest percentage were large.
Baseball historians will recognise this as what happened with light-skinned blacks in the South in the first half of the 20th C. It was an era in which players went to leagues in Mexico or the Caribbean in the winter, and it was okay to be Cuban when you came back to Florida in the summer. Teams were called Cubans pretty regularly. As Cuba was baseball-obsessed - even Fidel Castro played, and if he had been better we might not have endured him as a revolutionary - the "New York Cubans" could barnstorm in Birmingham. It was often partly true. Luis Tiant's father was actually Cuban, played for teams called the Cubans, and pitched in Negro League All-Star Games in the 1940's. But mostly it was a way of providing cover for African-Americans to play in the wealthier US. While it bears witness to racial prejudice, it also illustrates that the prejudice was waning and unraveling. Reality has a way of slowly grinding down beliefs that are merely convenient.
But now DNA comes into the picture, and we can know more. Melungeons are both African and European in descent, with little mixture of Native, and likely none of Middle Eastern or Romani. The article declares that they were descended from sub-Saharan African males and European females, but that can't be entirely so. The Estes study itself identifies a predominance of R1b1b2 male haplotype, and a few more that are R1a, and those are Western and Central European lineages. (Skip to page 28.) The rest are more commonly African, yes. Also, some of the mtDNA (female line) is more likely African than European. The reporting was sloppy there. There was also a ridiculous statement, typical of science reporting, that all of us are multiracial.
G. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara who’s spent more than 30 years examining multiracial people in the U.S. and wasn’t part of this research, said the study is more evidence that race-mixing in the U.S. isn’t a new phenomenon.
“All of us are multiracial,” he said. “It is recapturing a more authentic U.S. history.”
Why is this person even mentioned in the story? He wasn't part of the study, he is a sociologist with no known expertise in DNA, and he is flat wrong about all people being mixed race. Does he think the 4% of the US that is "Asian" are anything other than 100% from their country of origin for a thousand years, be it India, China, or Thailand? Most individual DNA results are of Americans of European descent, and the vast majority of them are entirely European, though they may be mixed versions from that continent. Ah well. The myths must be declared.
Melungeon has become something of a generic term in the late 20th and 21st C's - or that is the claim, anyway. I have not heard the term used myself very often over the decades, and that was always in the Virginia-Tennessee context I was used to.
Later generations came to believe some of the tales their ancestors wove out of necessity....
In recent years, it has become a catchall term for people of mixed-race ancestry and has been applied to about 200 communities in the eastern U.S. — from New York to Louisiana.
Among them were the Montauks, the Mantinecocks, Van Guilders, the Clappers, the Shinnecocks and others in New York. Pennsylvania had the Pools; North Carolina the Lumbees, Waccamaws and Haliwas and South Carolina the Redbones, Buckheads, Yellowhammers, Creels and others. In Louisiana, which somewhat resembled a Latin American nation with its racial mixing, there were Creoles of the Cane River region and the Redbones of western Louisiana, among others.
There were ethnicities that were acceptable, even if not welcomed.