17th Union Report

The 17th Melungeon Union was the best attended in six years, with more than fifty MHA members on the first day and more than seventy in attendance on Saturday to see the new documentary. The Wytheville Meeting Center was a commodious and welcoming venue for both the smaller conference on Friday and the film showing the next day.

Friday morning opened with Dr. Terry Mullins of Concord University presenting “Cultural Diversity Comes Home,” an introduction to Melungeons that he has been invited to give to several scholarly and general audiences. This was followed first by a panel consisting of MHA Vice President Scott Withrow, Elon University professor Kathy Lyday, and MHA Treasurer Phyllis Morefield. A new fantasy novel series by Alex Bledsoe provided the springboard for a discussion by Kathy and Scott of how Melungeons are perceived and misrepresented in popular culture, followed by remarks by Phyllis on finding Melungeon ancestry through genealogical research. The next panel consisted of Stacy Webb, Jeanne Bornefield, and me (KPJ), discussing “Melungeon Geography.” I opened with a presentation on the current distribution of Melungeons in the United States, compared to that of the Goins family. I announced plans for a 2015 collection from Backintyme Publications entitled The Goinses, tracing this family from the Carolina/Virginia coast through Appalachia into the Deep South and Midwest, to be co-edited by Stacy Webb and me. Stacy followed with a discussion of historic migration patterns of triracial peoples and the legal pressures that compelled their mobility in the 19th century. Jeanne concluded by introducing a new initiative to compile county-level genealogical contact information for mixed ancestry researchers, and discussed her Indiana research.

Following lunch, we had a lengthy informal period for chats on family and local history and then heard Beth Hirschman deliver what amounted to a keynote address on “Becoming Melungeon.” She proposed a model for the process based on the “stages of acceptance” associated with grief. First, we deny mixed ancestry in our own family lines; then accept it reluctantly and resentfully; and finally progress toward willing acceptance, embracing and celebrating our full heritage. Beth gave a humorous account of coming to terms with the fact that her forebears included no royalty or people of great wealth, but did include a great many despised ethnic minorities. The Friday session closed with the MHA annual meeting, followed by a period honoring Johnnie Gibson Rhea, who recently was featured in a public radio documentary about Melungeon DNA, some of which had been recorded at 16th Union.

The Saturday morning session opened with an address by MHA President S.J. Arthur on issues of identity for 21st century Melungeons and Melungeon descendants. SJ discussed different standards applied to self-identification as Melungeon contrasted with other ethnic groups, and the historical factors that prevented such self-identity until the emergence of the modern Melungeon movement. Manuel Mira followed with a discussion of his Portuguese heritage and long-term interest in Melungeon research. Wayne Winkler concluded the Saturday morning session with a masterful multimedia examination of 19thcentury primary sources on Melungeons and their many biases and distortions.

The climax and conclusion of the Union was a showing of The Melungeons of Vardy Valley. A panel composed of interviewees Claude Collins, DruAnna Williams Overbay, and Troy Williams was moderated by filmmaker Ian Cheney and complemented by co-producers Marilyn Cheney and Todd Beckham. The beautiful and moving documentary stimulated many questions and favorable comments from conferees. At the close of the Union, Claude Collins invited everyone to join MHA and the Vardy Community Historical Society for 18th Union, to be celebrated in Vardy, TN and Big Stone Gap, VA.