Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Rhetoric and Technical Communication (PhD)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Humanities


Diana L George


The Melungeons, a minority recognized in Southern Appalachia where they settled in the early 1800s, have mixed heritage—European, Mediterranean, Native American, and Sub-Saharan African. Their dark skin and distinctive features have marked them and been the cause of racial persecution both by custom and by law in Appalachia for two centuries. Their marginalization has led to an insider mentality, which I call a “literacy” of Melungeon-ness that affects every facet of their lives.

Just a century ago, while specialized practices such as farming, preserving food, hunting, gathering, and distilling insured survival in the unforgiving mountain environment, few Melungeons could read or write. Required to pay property taxes and render military service, they were denied education, suffrage, and other legal rights. In the late 1890s visionary Melungeon leader Batey Collins invited Presbyterian homemissionaries to settle in one Tennessee Melungeon community where they established a church and built a school of unparalleled excellence. Educator-ministers Mary Rankin and Chester Leonard creatively reified the theories of Dewey, Montessori, and Rauschenbusch, but, despite their efforts, school literacy did not neutralize difference.

Now, taking reading and writing for granted, Melungeons are exploring their identity by creating websites and participating in listserv discussions. These online expressions, which provide texts for rhetorical, semiotic, and socio-linguistic analysis, illustrate not solidarity but fragmentation on issues of origins and legitimacy. Armed with literacies of difference stemming from both nature and nurture, Melungeons are using literacy practices to embrace the difference they cannot escape.