It usually begins simply enough. A blue-eyed, olive-skinned child asks a parent: Who am I? Where did our family come from? In the mist-shrouded hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the answers have long been evasive.

When Brent Kennedy started questioning his origins, an aunt doused old family documents and photographs with gasoline and set them ablaze. "I hope you burn in hell," another relative told him.

Bill Fields grew up hearing an elaborate, romanticized, totally concocted genealogy traced back to a white matriarch captured by Indians.

Mary Ramsey Cameron's grandmother to this day refuses to even discuss the family tree. But a sympathetic aunt once whispered a melodic word that she implored Cameron to keep hush-hush:

Melungeon.

For generations in Appalachia, the word has been an epithet and worse. Melungeons, who have a mixed European, African and Native American heritage, have been maligned and denied their basic rights. They have been pushed off fertile land. They have been barred from schools. They have been prohibited from voting.

Now something extraordinary is happening here up on Stone Mountain and along Tennessee's Newman's Ridge, two bastions where Melungeon ancestors retreated from the land confiscations but could not escape the slurs. Descendants of men and women who desperately tried to hide their backgrounds so they and their children could pass as pure white are researching and proudly embracing their mixed Melungeon roots.

"It's a betrayal of my ancestors," acknowledged Kennedy, a University of Virginia administrator whom many credit with sparking the interest in Melungeon studies. But, he added: "I'm also liberating them. We are finally getting to the point where we are justifying who they were."

When about 1,000 people who are--or suspect they may be--Melungeon gathered in Wise recently for a conference exploring often arcane theories about their origins, many said they hope to set an example for Americans of all races.

"This is a movement," said Connie Clark, head of the Melungeon Heritage Association and a Wise high school teacher who educates her students on their Melungeon links. "Some people don't accept or tolerate differences. Our mission is to show the world we are all one people. Who better to teach that than those of us who are mixed? Our ancestors were persecuted. We were raised believing we were white. And now we're saying we are not white. Race doesn't matter. Here we are, poor Appalachians, and we're leading a movement."

There probably would be no Melungeon movement if Kennedy hadn't gotten sick in 1988.

Suddenly, he couldn't walk. His vision blurred. His joints throbbed. After receiving a diagnosis of sarcoidosis, he began reading up on a disease primarily found in people of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean descent. That was odd. Kennedy's relatives had always said they were Scotch-Irish. To the chagrin of some relatives, he began delving into his background. He became convinced they were Melungeons.

When his condition improved, Kennedy reassessed his life, quit his job as a fundraiser for nonprofit organizations in Atlanta and moved home to Wise. His mission in life was to unravel not just one family's past but the elusive mystery of the Melungeon people.

Even the numbers of Melungeons are little more than guesses. Researchers believe some 75,000 people are proud of their Melungeon background. Another 250,000 know they're Melungeon and don't want to know anything more about it. Theoretically, millions could have a Melungeon ancestor and not know it.

Family surnames are often a hint. Mullins, Goins, Collins and Roberson are classics. Some Melungeons suspect Abe Lincoln, Elvis Presley and Ava Gardner may all have had some Melungeon blood.

But it can be difficult to trace. Historical records are sometimes sketchy and amorphous. Family sagas are often clouded with unfilled blanks and outright lies. When records do exist, Melungeons were variously described as "Portyghee," Indian, white or "free persons of color." Who could blame Melungeons for shunning census takers? Some historical accounts were contemptuously racist.

"The Melungeons are filthy, their home is filthy," read a 1891 report published in the magazine Arena. "They are rogues, natural born rogues, close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful, cowardly and, to use their own word, sneaky. In many things they resemble the Negro. . . . They are an unforgiving people, although . . . they are slow to detect an insult, and expect to be spit upon."

To this day, there are teenagers around Wise who can remember their parents' admonitions to behave or else "the Melungeons will get you."

Kennedy thought there had to be a more balanced, complete explanation of how Melungeons came to be a much-villified "tri-racial isolate," as academics tag them in what many Melungeons consider a dismissive box.

As his search broadened, Kennedy began attracting a group of academics, physicians and fellow Melungeons interested in probing Melungeon origins.

Partly through research, partly through extrapolation, they have proposed a raft of theories, which Kennedy outlined in a controversial 1997 book called "The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People; An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America."

They believe they carry the genes of sailors, explorers and indentured servants--all men--who coupled with Native American women in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

One thread suggests they may have links to Portuguese and Spanish settlers left behind from the Spanish colony of Santa Elena, which today is Beaufort, S.C. Another theory traces them to Ottoman Turks and Moors who were galley slaves aboard Spanish ships and may have been freed by Sir Francis Drake on Roanoke Island, N.C. Still another possible connection is Turkish and Armenian craftsmen working in Virginia settlements in the mid-1600s.

Some believe their very name, Melungeon (pronounced meh-lun-jun), may be a derivation of the Turkish Mulun can, which translates as "damned soul." As Anglo-Saxons moved to the New World, the theory goes, the dark-skinned people with European features who already were there were shoved off fertile land into the hinterlands until they ended up in the hardscrabble mountains of Appalachia.

None of this has been proved to the satisfaction of most academics. They caution that Melungeons may be leaping to conclusions. And though many Melungeons note the African component of their background, some critics suggest the focus on exotic Turkish links is an attempt to distance themselves from their black ancestry.

Virginia DeMarce, a former president of the National Genealogical Society, notes that Melungeon is neither a race nor ethnicity, but a melange of racial genes that differs in every Melungeon family. She dismisses the theory of a Turkish link as undocumented fantasy, and many academics concur.

"It's a myth designed to give them some self-esteem they never had," said David Henige, a University of Wisconsin historian who specializes in African oral traditions. "They fail to realize it's not accidental that there is no evidence of these things."

Research into Melungeons can be as significant for some African Americans as it is for white Melungeons. For Kevin Hayes, a technical manager for IBM in Atlanta, it may help explain why he and his mother were born with sixth fingers that were amputated at birth and why an aunt has diseases more typical among Mediterranean people.

"The African American community is more accepting of not being pure African," said Hayes, who discovered Melungeons while searching a genealogical site on the Internet. "This country is a greater melting pot than most people imagine. People of mixed heritage need to acknowledge it and speak out about it if we are going to have any hope of overcoming racism."

Science is beginning to shed some light on origins discarded or forgotten generations ago. DNA tests in 1990 on blood samples from 177 Melungeons are consistent with Mediterranean, especially Portuguese, traits. Testing for Turkish links is just beginning.

"It's at least possible," said Chester DePratter, a University of South Carolina archaeologist digging at the Santa Elena site and an adviser to the Melungeon Heritage Association. "The evidence is there for some things, and others you need to be cautious about interpreting."

Although the Turkish Embassy says its government takes no official position on Melungeons, many Turks have embraced the Melungeons as long-lost cousins.

The University of Virginia at Wise and Dumlupinar University in Ankara recently established faculty and student exchanges. The towns of Wise and Cesme on the Aegean coast of Turkey are sister cities. One of Cesme's main streets has been renamed Wise Avenue. Melungeon heritage tours to Turkey have been reciprocated by Turkish tours coming to Appalachia. In 1996, Cesme dedicated a "Melungeon Mountain" overlooking the sea; about 30 visiting Melungeons have their names on small metal plaques attached to trees on the bluff.

And the Melungeon Heritage Association has just been accepted into the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations.

"We were surprised at first, then extremely excited," said Guler Koknar, the executive director. "It's not a clear-cut connection. But we're supportive of it. Who are we to say: 'We don't want you'?"

For many Melungeons, who have puzzled over convoluted family histories and unusual diseases, the emerging explanations just make more sense.

Wayne Winkler, a radio station manager whose mother is Jewish and father is Cherokee, said tracing his heritage to Melungeons has given him a sense of belonging.

"On the reservation, I was the Jew," he said. "In Hebrew school, I was the Indian. With Melungeons, it's like a shoe that finally fits."

For many Melungeons, the debate over their roots is as much about class as it is about race. It's a message to non-Melungeon folk in Appalachia, and to the world at large: The days of judging us are over. We're judging ourselves now.

"Appalachia is that place where you ain't never gonna get white enough, but spent an incredible amount of time trying," said Darlene Wilson, a Melungeon sociologist. "You can't have a middle class unless you've got an underclass. America needed Appalachia the way Appalachia needed Melungeons."

Ever since President John F. Kennedy, Melungeons say, politicians have used the poorest and most disheveled among them for staged photos that stereotyped them as poor, crude and uneducated hillbilly moonshiners.

"This is about Appalachian people taking control of saying what we are," said Bill Fields, publisher of the Melungeon newsletter, Under One Sky. "The academics don't like it, but we're telling ourselves our own history. That hasn't happened before in this part of the country."