North Carolina Historical Review on Pell Mellers

This review appeared in the 85th volume of the venerable journal, January 2009:

K. Paul Johnson in his family history Pell Mellers: Race and Memory in a Carolina Pocosin uses the “process of exploring family mysteries” to gain a “deeper understanding of the region and times they [his family] inhabited” (p. 13) while respecting the limitations that extant records might place on such an endeavor.  Centered on his own research experience, Johnson takes the reader on a contemporary journey of practical genealogy—visiting archives, local government repositories, long-known and newly-met relatives, geographical areas (houses, neighborhoods, and areas such as pocosins), engaging new technology such as the Internet and DNA testing—while exploring the time line between generations.  Johnson uses all the resources at his command to learn more about his people, their place, and their time—the central focus of genealogy.

                Bertie County is the point of origin (at least since colonial times) of various branches of Johnson’s family.  He explores the many facets of this region by focusing on his family in the Pell Mell area during a specific time (colonial era, Civil War, and the rise of Jim Crow to name three more important time frames.)  Pell Mell is one of several areas in North Carolina that are home to populations with tri-racial mixtures.  Melungeons, as these Native, Africans and European people are often called, inhabit a unique place in the history of the region.  Johnson takes care to show the reader how these “free people of color” are both constrained by and set free by their mixed heritages.  Property owners before the the Civil War, many of these free people joined North Carolina’s Union volunteers during the war.  Their story is often the exception to the rule of history writ large.

                Johnson also reveals a sense of community with the Pell Mell racial mix by describing how Pell Mellers migrated as  group.  When industrial expansion in nearby Norfolk, Virginia, offered better prospects for work, Pell Mellers moved there to exploit the opportunity, reconstituting a community in a more urban setting.

                Johnson deftly moves the story along and hints at family mysteries and scandal.  Unfortunately, this occasionally leads to a bit of confusion in the narrative.  In some case he relies too much on another genealogists’ work instead of checking the original record himself, and on other occasions he speculates a bit foo far about early generations.  But these are not fatal issues, and the fascinating story of self-discovery and local history applied to one’s family offer more than enough counterbalances to keep the work afloat.  Anyone interested in either preserving their own family story in the annals of history or reading Johnson’s successful documentation of his own famiy history should read this work.  The book (illustration; notes, 208 pages; paper, $15.95) is published by Backintyme Publishing (386) 446-4909.   Alex Christopher Meekins, Archives and Records Section, NC Office of Archives and History.