The Melungeons Got Me!—and I Couldn’t Have Been More Tickled!
By Linda Ladd Townsend
I attended the 18th Union: A Melungeon Gathering, (June, 2014), and felt instantly included. I am writing this summary to encourage other newbies to attend a Union, to answer the question of “What happens at a Union gathering?” and also to say “Thank You!” to the old timers, who helped me to feel so welcome.
My experience started on Friday on a meandering trail into the heart of Melungeon country–Vardy, TN. Anyone who has read anything about Melungeons on the internet knows about Vardy, Newman’s Ridge, Blackwater and Big Haley (who is said to have weighed many hundreds of pounds), and her moonshine cabin. But to actually experience the effort of getting into this area, even today, makes one appreciate the remote, primitive life of the early Melungeons. Good luck finding Vardy on a map or even your GPS at times. Sometimes it comes up in Sneedville, TN and other times around Blackwater, VA. Be sure and load it into your GPS before heading out of your internet connection, as you will not be able to access it as you travel away from civilization. The sayings that “you can’t get there from here” and “you need to get lost to find the place” begin to play on your mind. Without a doubt, the trip proved to be a magnificent adventure. Keep in mind that you left the interstate a long time ago, and just about the time your spouse starts whining that you must be lost and wants to just give up and go back—just recalibrate your time frame—you are on Melungeon time and are probably just about half-way there. Get yourself into a Melungeon state of mind and allow a lot of time to take it all in and enjoy yourself, rather than stressing over why you aren’t there yet. One high point is the sheer beauty of the area, lush and green, with Tiger Lilies growing wild along the sometimes gravel road. High ridge roads give views into patchwork-quilt panoramas of valley fields and homes. This puts a face to the expression “back in them thar Hills and Hollers.” In regard to visiting Vardy, the experience includes both getting there and the destination.
When you arrive it will look just like on the internet, except on a very grand scale. It is hard to take a picture that will do justice to the size of Newman’s Ridge and the beauty of Vardy Valley. No wonder some people lived together rather than getting married—it was just too darn far into town to get legal. Except for the need for work and education, due to the sheer beauty of life here, who would really want to leave? I have already returned many times in my mind’s eye, when I want to go on a mini-vacation to a peaceful place.
The real face, as well as heart and soul, of Vardy is DruAnna Williams Overbay of the Vardy Community Historical Society. The home where she was born is just a stone’s throw from the church. She went above and beyond to show us every detail of the museum church, complete with a model of the school that was built by the early Presbyterians. She described the early times in Vardy Valley from the late 1800’s to the 1950’s, where the well-educated teachers devoted their lives to teaching the children, who would otherwise have been “lost in the woods” in regard to higher learning. The biggest surprise was to learn how well educated the Vardy School children became, many receiving college degrees. Much love is evident in the preservation of the Presbyterian Church and Museum and the contribution of a donation is willingly given and much needed to keep the lights on and the AC running. You might not return, but someone else researching their heritage will make the pilgrimage, and you want it to still be there for them. It is definitely a touchstone and epicenter of the Melungeon heritage in the area.
Across the road from the church, what a treat it was to see the lovingly restored Mahalia Mullins cabin; the place where Big Haley raised her many children, cooked her brew, had fine dishes and furniture, and died, requiring the destruction of a wall to remove the large coffin that was constructed from her bed for her burial. There are restroom facilities, but bring your own food and drinks; or you could sign up in advance for the box lunch offered for $5. Gas up before you leave to come, as there are no services in Vardy.
We also viewed the documentary The Melungeons of Vardy Valley; a beautifully created intimate view of the history, the people and the current excitement, and sometimes the ambivalence, of researching one’s Melungeon roots. The music combined with the artistic graphics serves to enhance the experience of being drawn into the heart of the heritage of the Melungeons. Anyone with any interest in Melungeons needs to put a visit to Vardy on their Bucket List, and if DruAnna’s gracious hospitality greets you, expect to have a deep sense of “coming home.”
Friday night was a social time at Mountain Empire Community College at Big Stone Gap, VA. Food was provided and it was easy to mingle with the “old timers,” the authors and presenters. I found out later that the lady who came up to me and said “Glad to see another redhead,” was S J Arthur, the president of the last few years. Brent Kennedy was there; my beginning knowledge of Melungeons came from him. Arwin Smallwood gave me more information in a few minutes than I could have found in a lifetime on the internet, just while we sat at the same table eating dinner. I quickly found that this group consists of a highly educated group of professionals with a passion for all things Melungeon, and are willing and eager to share their knowledge; along with others like me, who are everyday people just beginning to search their Melungeon roots. One man had just joined the week before and had traveled from Arkansas. Seeking Melungeon roots makes people do strange and wonderful things.
Saturday was a full day of presentations by experts, many with PhD level research. Where else can you sit at the feet of the masters for about $10 for the whole day? Topics covered included DNA testing, Jewish and Arab roots, Spiritualism, and the definitive answer to “What happened to the lost colony? Another lady, who was raised in Michigan, reported how she gradually discovered her Melungeon heritage and developed her cultural identity. Utilizing the interviews of actual Melungeons, a research project was presented outlining the results of examining the ethnic identify development process and life experiences of the Melungeons, particularly the impact of social dynamics on self-identification. This is only a small sampling of the materials presented, but it gives an idea as to the depth of the presentations.
A complete book store was available and many of the authors were present to sign my copies. Stacy Mae Webb, author and owner of Backintyme book publishers, was present. She happens to live in the area where I was raised in west KY and offered to help with my brick wall. (It appears that my Shepherd line from Christian Co, KY may have roots back to the Sappony Indians from Person Co, N. Carolina and may even go back to the Lost Colony). I got to meet Paul Johnson, Treasurer, who had been so helpful in getting me registered as a member of the Association. He had also quickly answered my initial query with very helpful information; all within a day or so of my posting.
A business meeting was held where the memory of a cornerstone member Johnnie Gibson Rhea was honored and Melungeon oriented door prizes were awarded to most in attendance. A partnership between the Association and the community college was celebrated, securing a repository for the history of the Association and a place of study for future seekers. Although this was my first attendance at a Union, I felt very welcomed by those who had been to every one.
According to folklore, parents used to frighten their children into obedience by threatening them that if they strayed from the path they were told to follow, the Melungeons would get them. In other areas of the country, this threat could have been called the boogeyman. So to anyone considering attending future Unions, I highly recommend the effort; dive in head first, the water is fine. But be fully warned–“The Melungeons just might get you–like they did me–and delightfully you will never be the same!”