16th Union Report



(Johnnie Rhea and Rose Trent at 16th Union– photo courtesy of Julie Williams Dixon)

16th Union at the Southwest Virginia Historical Museum State Park

Report by K. Paul Johnson

Every Melungeon Union combines an extended family reunion with a scholarly conference featuring authors and researchers sharing the latest perspectives on our heritage.  All presenters come at their own expense, as volunteers receiving no compensation or travel costs, as do MHA members who organize and direct the conference.  We travel considerable distances to attend this annual event, to learn and celebrate this heritage we share and treasure.

New this year at 16th Union was a preconference free and open to the public on Friday, June 29th called “Discover Your Melungeon Heritage” and featuring Johnnie Gibson Rhea, Phyllis Morefield, Phyllis Starnes, and me (KPJ).  The Museum Parlor in which we met had 50 seats, and 10 more had to be brought in to handle the crowd.  This while some were outside at the book table and registration tent, so overall Friday attendance was much higher than the 40 or so typical of recent years.  However, the most extreme weather in a long time caused attendance to decline Saturday rather than increase as in past experience, as the event had been advertised as occurring outdoors on the lawn, and temperatures were well over 100 in Wise County by afternoon.  45 or so conferees fit comfortably indoors in the air conditioning and enjoyed some very colorful stories about Appalachian communities – true and fictional—throughout the Saturday presentations.  And some continued to be working outdoors even in the grueling heat Saturday, most notably MHA President S.J. Arthur and Registrar Jim Morefield.

No one represents Melungeon heritage in quite the way that Johnnie Gibson Rhea does, since she is a native Virginian who has spent almost all her life in Tennessee and is known and loved by Melungeons in both states.  Johnnie welcoming the conferees with stories of her family heritage on Newman’s Ridge, as a Gibson, Collins, and Goins descendant, set the tone for an informal and fun afternoon of genealogical explorations. With Claude Collins and Rose Trent, who organized the reception following the preconference, Johnnie made everyone feel a warm welcome to match the temperatures.

Phyllis Morefield had a cornucopia of news about online genealogical research, thanks to her recent work as a volunteer at the MHA booth in Cincinnati where the National Genealogical Society was holding its annual conference. MHA thanks Phyllis both for her hard work in Cincinnati and Big Stone Gap and for the entertaining presentation in which she shared tips and stories about genealogical research.

My presentation on links between Pell Mellers and Melungeons began with family stories, examined genealogical evidence, and concluded with a description of DNA testing and its mixed results in answering historical questions about my own mixed ancestry.  This was intended as a preview of the keynote address, since my genealogical quest centered on the same county in North Carolina, Bertie, about which Dr. Smallwood had written a book in 2002 and which continues to be a research focus for him.

Phyllis Starnes spoke informally about the promises and pitfalls of genetic testing for genealogical research, helping us through the labyrinth of Y-DNA, mitochondrial, and autosomal studies of Melungeons. We owe Phyllis thanks for generating more questions in the q&a than the rest of us combined, and for answering them deftly and capably.

Arwin D. Smallwood, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Colonial American History at the University of Memphis, was the keynote speaker at 13th Union in 2009, and has been a presenter in every subsequent Union, returning this year at 16th to give a keynote address that featured new dimensions of the research he has been pursuing for several years on the Tuscarora tribe’s diaspora from his native Bertie County.  This year Dr. Smallwood included a detailed accounting of Virginia’s legal oppression of people of color, a tightening noose of restrictions throughout the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth.  This becomes a factor in the migration of African-European mixed families southward into North Carolina and westward into mountainous regions of Virginia, away from the plantations and slavery and into frontier communities where they interblended with Indians who had likewise been displaced.  MHA is indebted to Dr. Smallwood for his ongoing work which tends to incorporate the traditionally-accepted triracial explanation of Melungeon origins with the more exotic possibilities of Mediterranean ancestry suggested by folklore. He was extensively interviewed by a local newspaper reporter so we look forward to seeing the coverage.

Dr. Terry Mullins opened the Saturday proceedings with a perspective on Appalachian community histories from an author who has made many contributions in this field.  His doctoral dissertation, on Bishop Virginia/West Virginia, was published by Overmountain press in 1996, and he has since coauthored photographic histories of Tazewell County, Virginia and of four communities within that county: Tazewell (2006), Burke’s Garden (2007), Jewell Ridge (2008), and Bluefield (2009).  Hidden Histories of Tazewell County (2010) was edited by Dr. Mullins. He also discussed the experience of writing a church history for Pisgah UMC in 1993, and being recently commissioned to write histories of two smaller Southwest Virginia communities. MHA owes thanks to Terry for his children’s book Melungeons Out of the Dungeon and for all his work bringing the Melungeon story to Appalachian community history.

The photo of Wayne Winkler in the current Coalfield Progress is testimony to his courage in being the only speaker to give his presentation outdoors under a tent, as advertised.  Although he spoke in fiery heat, the morning after an incredibly stormy night across the region, there were no “firestorms” of controversy.  Most of his talk was devoted to explaining how Melungeons have been misunderstood and mythologized in traditionally-cited primary sources. But in the final third, he delved into the recent publicity about Melungeon DNA, which he had discussed in a radio interview just before coming to 16th Union. Phyllis Starnes had prepared the conferees on Friday afternoon to distinguish between three aspects of recent discussions of Melungeon DNA.  The lab results, and the study itself, are matters of objective fact that is indisputable; the interpretation in this or any report is necessarily tinged with subjective bias; the soundbites conveyed by the media confuse and distort both the study and the report.

Wayne followed up on the DNA issue by explaining that the negative spin of the recent AP story and especially the headlines were not intended by the report authors.  Yet the headlines were undeniably negative– in that our Native American and Mediterranean ancestry were allegedly disproven and relegated to the status of racist mythology—more than positive about what was proven.  After all, the study authors selected “a multi-ethnic population” as a subtitle, and not “mulatto wannabe Indians” which nonetheless has been the stereotypical insult applied to Melungeons in the wake of the AP story.  Conferees were left feeling that the air had been cleared of some misunderstandings and hard feelings.  What the study  does prove beyond dispute is the subsaharan African Y DNA lineage of many families of the Newman’s Ridge Melungeon community.  But by its very nature, such a study cannot disprove the triracial status of Melungeons in general—which has been unanimously attested by generations of social scientists as well as testimony of Melungeons themselves. Mediterranean ancestry was repeatedly claimed by 19th century Melungeons in addition to Native American, English, and African ancestry, and not as a cover story to deny the triracial foundations of their communities. In his closing remarks, Wayne stated clearly that nothing in any DNA evidence conflicts with the triracial-and-beyond understanding of Melungeons presented in Dr. Smallwood’s keynote address the night before.

Since 1998, the Melungeon Heritage Association has been claiming and celebrating the full multi-ethnicity of our extended kinship network.  We thank Wayne Winkler for his presentation at 16th Union, handling a situation rife with confusion and controversy in a way that brought greater understanding of all the nuances and complexities involved.

Lisa Alther’s presentation combined two books published in the past year, both set in southern Appalachia and depicting communities on the margins of so-called civilization. Washed in the Blood, Alther’s eighth novel but the first on Melungeons, was published by Mercer University Press in late 2011.  It was the topic of a preview at 15th Union in Swannanoa last summer, but now that the book is available Lisa graciously agreed to devote half her presentation to it at 16th Union, before discussing her hugely successful new non-fiction study of the Hatfield-McCoy feud.

Couchtown, Virginia, the fictional setting of most of Washed in the Blood, is located some distance east of Big Stone Gap, but its story will be recognizable to MHA readers even though the word Melungeon never appears. (Alther explained that the characters would not have used the word so it had no place in the novel.) The Tug Fork Valley, some distance north of Big Stone Gap, is the historical setting for Blood Feud, and once again Alther painstaking and lovingly recreates an Appalachian community of the past that has been shrouded in myth and mystery.

Readers are indebted to Lisa for her sensitive, humorous, compassionate rendering of Melungeon history, both in her novel and her earlier non-fiction book Kinfolks. (2007)  MHA congratulates her on the immediate bestseller status of Blood Feud, testimony to her skill in bringing narrative techniques from fiction to make history come to life.

Sharon Ewing, museum director and park manager, opened our final Saturday afternoon session with a narrated presentation of slides depicting the history of Big Stone Gap. Her 2008 Arcadia book Big Stone Gap from the series Images of America: Virginia was the source of photos, and Sharon’s humorous account of various figures in the town’s history gave the conferees a better feel for the community which was so welcoming to us.

MHA’s gratitude to Sharon extends beyond her lively presentation. Since January, she and chief ranger Aaron Davis have provided great assistance to our planning process for 16th Union.  During the event, they were constantly supportive and available to us, assisted by seven young (high school student) volunteers from the Youth Conservation Corps, the museum staff, and Ariel, another volunteer with several years of experience with the Museum, now a college student.  They helped us with book sales, equipment setup, all the errands that arise at the last minute, and all cheerfully despite the extreme conditions outdoors.  Aaron Davis deserves a special word of thanks for his early warning of the Derecho that was heading towards southwest Virginia, giving us plenty of time to reach our motel rooms to watch TV coverage of the massive storm that barely missed Wise County but devastated some of our hometowns across West Virginia and Virginia.

The hospitality of the museum and the town, and the satisfaction of MHA conferees with the setting, were such that we were left wondering, not whether to return for a future Union—but when, and how regularly thereafter.  A member survey was taken at 16th Union which will help the board plan 17th and 18th Union venues and dates well in advance.

One unplanned quality of 16th Union was the escalating laughter from conferees as speakers brought out the humorous angles on their subject matter. Dr. Kathy Lyday-Lee took on a very serious topic, the stereotyping of Melungeons and Appalachian people in literature, with a light touch that suggested that the proper way to respond to such stereotypes is to laugh at them. (But also to understand them.)  Lisa Alther had mentioned the subject of Appalachian stereotypes arising from the Hatfield/McCoy feud.  As a scholar of Appalachian literature, Kathy carried this thread forward with a look at literary depictions of Melungeons, from Will Allen Dromgoole through Mildred Haun and Jesse Stuart to contemporary authors.  Sometimes stereotypical traits are put to good use in novels, for example the six-fingered Melungeons of Alther’s work. But more often the mysterious, tragic, half-wild portrayal of Melungeons has conveyed negative messages. The surprise ending of Kathy’s presentation was her description of a new novel by Alex Bledsoe, The Hum and the Shiver, set in Needsville, home of the mysterious dark Tufa people who are able to fly when conditions are just right—the “hum.” Detail after detail made it clear that Melungeons and Hancock County were the model for this fantasy novel, announced as first of a series.  We were left eagerly awaiting her forthcoming review of this fantasy retelling of the Melungeon story, after hearing her discuss its use of stereotypes.  MHA thanks Dr. Lyday-Lee for bringing her expertise in literary history to the topic of Melungeon myth vs. reality, and for handling a sensitive issue in a way that engulfed the room in laughter again and again.

The finale of 16th Union brought us full circle from our last celebration in Big Stone Gap in 2007.  The big news that year at 11th Union was the debut of Melungeon Voices, Julie Williams Dixon’s documentary film which was seven years in the making. Julie returned to her native county, which largely inspired the quest behind Melungeon Voices, after five years in which the film has won several awards, been shown to audiences throughout the eastern and southern US, and been a huge hit at National Genealogical Society conferences in Raleigh (2009) and Charleston (2011.)  This year Julie returned to Big Stone Gap and opened her presentation with a selection of outtakes from Melungeon Voices, raw footage of interviews from ten years ago that included three Melungeons attending 16th Union: Claude Collins, Johnnie Rhea, and Wayne Winkler. Interviews with them and others brought out colorful details of Appalachian community life in the days before modern conveniences. Conferees were delighted with this look behind the scenes of a documentary that has been warmly embraced by the Melungeon community.

16th Union closed with a showing of a new documentary for which Julie was the co-writer, Birth of a Colony: North Carolina.  The film, which debuted in October 2011 on North Carolina Public TV, depicts the impact on Native Americans of successive waves of European settlers and armies who arrived in what is now North Carolina from first contact through the Tuscarora Wars.   Julie was responsible for the interviews with scholarly experts on the period, all of whom were excellent, and none more eloquent on the Indians of the Carolina coast than 16th Union keynote speaker Dr. Arwin Smallwood.  The term “pre-Melungeon” occurred to me after viewing Birth of a Colony and reading Washed in the Blood.  Both works provide essential background knowledge of the historical conditions in which the blending of European, African, and Indian cultures and DNA occurred that led to all the “triracial isolates” including Melungeons.

MHA thanks Julie for once again bringing her passion for historical research and her love of filmmaking to Melungeon viewers, who are perhaps uniquely qualified to appreciate the labor of love in Melungeon Voices and the historical depth and breadth ofBirth of a Colony.