One of the fun things about chasing down one’s ancestors is the numerous sideroads and detours one finds.
This week I’m deep into studies about my family’s role in the Revolutionary War. This is more difficult than I thought it would be, so I’m taking the week off to follow a side path into a curious family story that actually has nothing to do with my family…as far as I can tell, anyway.
Racism has been a dark part of our national story since before we began shipping in captured Africans to work on our plantations and farms. I can only imagine how it feels to wear the badge of your so-called “status” in such an obvious way as the color of your skin. As a so-called “white,” I can never claim that I’m not racist since I’ve never had to think twice about the instant judgment people make upon seeing my skin color.
In the early 1800s, in the eastern Kentucky Appalachians, there was a family whose skin color made them the target of fear and scorn. Strangely, they weren’t black…they were blue.
Yes, you read that correctly. They were blue like robin’s eggs, like an April sky, like the waters of the deepest lake. Blue.
The family of Martin Fugate, who had emigrated from France, came to be known as the “blue people of Kentucky.”
When I first heard this story, I thought it was one of those mountain myths, a story told by someone who heard that someone else had talked to someone else who had seen them. I thought it might be a story easily explained; maybe a coal miner’s skin absorbed the coal dust in a way that appeared blue in the light of day. Maybe it was a dietary aberration, much like too many carrots can turn your skin orange for a brief time.
Nope. This family was blue. I have seen a grainy photo of a crude painting of a family unit: a blue father and four blue children with a “normal” mother and three “normal” children. There is no doubt the artist was on his honor to render the family as he saw them. Public opinion would have roasted him if he had pictured them all as white; the family would have hunted him down if he had colored them all blue.
Of course, this family was much talked about and even feared as ghosts and “haints.” Women dragged children across the street so as not to walk past them on the sidewalk. Merchants laid the change from their purchases on the counter to keep from accidentally touching them.
The condition now has a name: methemoglobinemia, and it was discovered in the 1960s to be the result of a faulty gene. If a person has two of these genes, the levels of methemoglobin cause their skin to be blue, their lips purple, their blood to be a chocolate brown. If a person inherits only a single gene, they look “normal” but can pass the disorder on to their children.
Blueman Martin Fugate was an orphan who had traveled to Kentucky from France. He met and married red-haired Elizabeth Smith, who, as it turned out, carried one gene for the disorder. She and her husband had seven children, four of whom inherited the gene from each parent and had blue skin.
Being so visibly different, the family hid in the hills of Appalachia, attempting to hide their skin with long sleeves and bonnets and gloves during trips into town.
As a result of their social and geographical isolation, there was intermarriage between cousins and aunts and uncles, producing more “blues” as children were born.
Kim Michele Richardson has written a novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. I picked up the book because I was intrigued by the history of the ladies of the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project. Richardson, however, chose to tell the story from the perspective of one young woman who happened to be blue, and I was quickly drawn into the story of the Blue People of Kentucky.
The entire book is based on fact, the story a fictional account of being a person, a real person with hopes and dreams and issues, but a person with the added difficulty of being “different.”
What is normal? And who decides? I’ve often wondered about that. I have a friend who says, “Normal is just a setting on the washing machine,” and we laugh, but it’s true that normal is a very fuzzy state of being.
It seems a shame that the color of our skin hides the person underneath, and an even bigger shame that what we see is all we ever know of others.