Monthly Archives: October 2016

“Creoles and Melungeons: More Important than Ever to America” by Nick Douglas

Published by:

 Mr. Douglas spoke about his Creole research at 19th Union.


Creoles and Melungeons: More Important Than Ever to America

The unique origins of Creoles and Melungeons parallel and complement each other. Their genesis is a uniquely American phenomenon.

Creoles, like Melungeons, are a race of black, white and Native American people. Most Creoles and Melungeons have a long history of freedom. For Melungeons, freedom dated back to pre-colonial America. In my family, the first Creoles were free people born in Sante Domingue and Haiti, who emigrated to New Orleans in the 1700s and 1800s.

Both Creoles and Melungeons claimed Native American heritage in oral history but had little documented proof. Creole oral history is infused with Choctaw, Seminole and Natchez relationships and kinships. Melungeon oral history is infused with Cherokee, Tuscarora, Lumbee and Croatan relationships and kinships. DNA testing is now confirming Native American heritage for many Melungeons and Creoles.

Many of the first families classified as Melungeons were started by indentured white women who had children with black indentured servants, free men of color or slaves. This fact complements Creole stories of white fathers in New Orleans having children with free women of color or slaves.

Melungeon history directly contradicts a Southern taboo on relationships between white women and men of color. Among New Orleans and Louisiana Creoles, white men claimed to be black or free people of color to be able to leave wealth and property to their Creole of color children. These early examples of Melungeons and Creoles show how extensive and intertwined the relationships between blacks, white and Native Americans were, before racial designation became of paramount importance in the U.S.

New Orleans Creoles have been associated with plaçage relationships between white men and women of color. Plaçage relationships were contractual, notarized and negotiated arrangements, oftentimes with older family members present to hammer out the details. They were legally binding and could be ended by either party. Elaborate balls were associated with these relationships, as a place for white men to meet eligible free women of color for monogamous or mistress relationships.

It is a myth and a mistake to assume this was the sole way that white men met eligible free women of color. Like the indentured white women in Virginia who had children of color whose descendants intermarried with Native Americans and were known as Melungeons, it is much more likely that people met because they lived and worked in close proximity to each other. In New Orleans places like the Café des Refugies, a European-style coffee house and restaurant founded in the 1790s was one of the many places whites and blacks mixed even after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. So plaçage arrangements were just one of the many ways relationships were formed. It also served a purpose for white and black people who fell in love. Because it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry, legally binding plaçage relationships gave stability across racial lines. Others simply cohabited.

During the heyday of these balls in the 1830s and 1840s, Creole society and families were well established in New Orleans. Many Creole women came from well-to-do families that married amongst themselves, and had no reason to enter into plaçage relationships. By the 1860s some Creole social clubs like Les Jeunes Amis did not allow those with plaçage relationships in their ancestry to become members.

Creoles and Melungeons also share a common history of isolation. Melungeons were isolated by geography. Their choice of Hancock and Hawkins counties as the place for their early settlements isolated them on what was then the frontier of the American colonies. These early Melungeon families, like Creoles, intermarried because families shared the same backgrounds and proximity.

Despite Creole mobility and city lifestyle, Creoles were isolated in Louisiana. After the Louisiana Purchase they inhabited the social strata below whites but above slaves. It was illegal for them to marry whites and taboo to marry slaves. This isolation forced Creoles of New Orleans to do several unique things that helped them maintain their cultural cohesion. First, like Melungeons, they began to marry amongst themselves, which reinforced and renewed Creole relationships between families. My own family history has numerous examples of siblings from one Creole family marrying siblings from another. Second, they began to form their own institutions. Starting in the 1820s, they founded social clubs and benevolent societies. Two of these societies, Société d’Economie and La Loge Perserverence, would become New Orleans landmarks, known today as Economy Hall and Preservation Hall. Formed in direct reaction to increased racial prejudice in the South, these institutions and societies filled social and economic needs that arose as New Orleans whites took away rights and resources based on racial designations. These cohesive family and social relationships and separate institutions helped Creoles maintain their cultural integrity.

Although the historical timelines are slightly different, the strategy used to discriminate against, intimidate and disenfranchise Melungeons and Creoles was the same.

Creoles developed in a society with liberal manumissions laws (granting freedom from slavery), open relationships between blacks, whites and Native Americans and rights determined by birth right rather than the color of your skin. With the American takeover of Louisiana Territory in 1803 this society began to be replaced with more rigid racial designations.

Here are the laws that were passed to enforce a more rigid and restrictive society based on race:

In 1807 it became illegal to free slaves under 30.

Between 1812 and 1825 free people of color had to register at the mayor’s office upon entering New Orleans. Their freedom could be revoked if they were not able to provide proof of freedom and residency upon demand.

After 1825 any slave who was manumitted in Louisiana had to leave the state within 60 days.

In 1830 legislation was passed requiring all free people of color who had entered the state after 1826 to leave within 60 days of face imprisonment and one year hard labor. The same law prohibited whites and free people of color from using “language that might engender slave discontent or rebellion.” Whites who violated the legislation faced fines and up to three years in prison. Free people of color who violated this legislation faced three years of hard labor and perpetual banishment.

After 1831 masters who freed slaves needed to post a bond to guarantee that the freed slaves would leave the state of Louisiana within the allotted time. In neighboring Mississippi, it became illegal to free slaves after 1842. By 1857 it was illegal to free slaves in Louisiana. By the late 1850s the Louisiana legislature was considering a bill requiring free people of color to have white sponsors. Legislation was also introduced to confiscate the property of free people of color.

In New Orleans during the Civil War and Reconstruction Creoles had a window of opportunity to exercise their civil rights, Creoles formed La Tribune and L’Union newspapers and all people of color exercised their right to vote. But after the federal troops pulled out of the South in 1876, Democrats took over the political landscape and instituted Jim Crow and Black Codes to strip free people of color of their rights. Finally in 1894 a segregation bill was passed in New Orleans that made the French Quarter exclusively white. Creoles were ghettoized Uptown, in neighborhoods zoned for brothels and saloons, an area called Storyville after alderman Sidney Story, who created the legislation. This law had unintended consequences. It forced Creole musicians, many of whom were classically trained, to live in the same neighborhoods with other virtuosos, some of whom could not read music. This spurred their collaboration, and the creation of a new art form–jazz.

At the turn of the century several white historians attempted to rewrite Louisiana history by claiming that Creoles were only white and of French extraction. Huey Long’s famous quote “Why you could feed all the pure white and pure blacks in Louisiana with a cup of beans and half a cup of rice” better expresses the reality of Louisiana at the time.

Some Melungeon families settled in Hancock County, Tennessee and neighboring counties in Tennessee and Virginia, where in subsequent censuses they classified as free people of color. They could vote and enjoy all the rights afforded to landowners at the time. Melungeons had been voting since Tennessee’s statehood in 1796. But the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1834 disenfranchised people of color. Similar laws were passed in Virginia and North Carolina in response to the Nat Turner Uprising, disenfranchising free people of color there.

Disenfranchisement meant that, as racial tension increased in the lead-up to the Civil War, Melungeons could have ttheir legal rights legislated away because of their racial designation. Classified as free people of color, Melungeons like Creoles were forced to contest their property, voting and inheritance rights due to their racial designation.

The term Melungeon itself became an epithet. In the 1920s Virginia bureaucrat Walter Plecker ordered state agencies to re-classify Native American as “colored” and discontinue the use of “mulatto” to enforce binary racial designations. But Melungeons like Creoles simply change their racial designation to suit their economic, social or academic needs or hid their identity altogether.

The history of Melungeons and Creoles tells of a time and a place in America where race and skin color were not important. Both Melungeons and Creoles were living proof that blacks, whites and Native Americans could get along and even love each other. Pre-colonial white women had relationships with slaves, free men of color and Native Americans. White men declared themselves of color to ensure their children could inherit their wealth and property.

By declaring ourselves Melungeons and Creoles today, we recapture our identity and celebrate our heritage.

Melungeons, Creoles, Redbones and other groups are more important to the U.S. than ever. By uncovering our shared history (and in some cases, like Creole slaveholders in my own ancestry, our shared shame) we uncover and round out an American history that has been incomplete.

With our first non-white president we have seen a virulent form of racism re-emerge. Creole and Melungeon history must be told and studied as the antidote to this racism and to the dichotomy of racial designation in America.

Nick Douglas is an MBA with a background in international business. Born in Oakland, California, Nick grew up in a multi-generational Creole home. As a child he had a close connection to his grandmother and great-grandmother, who were both Creoles from New Orleans. Suddenly in 2009, while helping his daughter create a family tree for a school project, Nick stumbled on to a hidden history stretching back 300 years and involving some of the most well-known characters in U.S. and world history. He found that his business travels eerily mirrored those of his ancestors. Finding Octave connects numerous large, prominent Creole families. It explains Creoles’ place in and contributions to Louisiana and American society as it follows their triumphs and tribulations through a turbulent U.S. history.

His book Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana is available on and through Margaret Media at

Mattie Ruth Johnson, 1944-2014

Published by:

Mattie Ruth Johnson, age 73, died Wednesday, August 13, 2014 at Holston Valley Medical Center, Kingsport, Tennessee. Mattie Ruth, who spoke at 6th Union, authored My Melungeon Heritage: A Story of Life on Newman’s Ridge (Overmountain Press, 1997).

Tracing her ancestry to the Collins, Mullins, and Gibson families of Hancock County, she gave us a personal account of growing up on Prospect Ridge, part of Newman’s Ridge. She had many friends among MHA members who remember her kindness, her art work, and her Melungeon genealogical research. At 14th Union in 2010 (Lincoln Memorial University), and again at 16th Union in 2012 (Southwest Virginia Museum), Julie Williams Dixon shared outtakes from her documentary Melungeon Voices, and her interview with Mattie Ruth was especially enjoyed by those who attended the presentation. Mattie Ruth gave five of her paintings of the Newman’s Ridge area to Philip Roberts, who has kindly allowed us to use them on our main page. Here are his descriptions of the places depicted:

The red house is her grandparents home, Walter and Nora Gibson Collins. The log home is on the same property and the home of Walter’s parents, Lewis and Sarah Gibson Collins. Her mother, Celia, was a Roberts. Lewis Collins was the brother of my ancestor Frances Collins Roberts, descendants of Solomon Collins. The church was Prospect Church on the Ridge, no longer there.
Here I’ve posted another painting of Ruths, Mahala Mullins cabin as it appeared years ago on Newman’s Ridge when folks lived in it.
To recap the other paintings I sent earlier:
1-Barn in snow.  That was a barn on or near her family home place on Newman’s Ridge.
2-Walter and Nora (Gibson) Collins . The red house.  That was Ruth’s grandparents place as she remembered it growing up.  It was near Prospect on Newman’s Ridge. The house still stands but about to fall down and overgrown.
3-Lewis and Sarah (Gibson) Collins log house. On the same property as the red house.  Lewis and Sarah were Ruth’s great grandparents. The log cabin still stands but is about to cave in also.
4-Prospect Church on Newmans’ Ridge. The Prospect school that Ruth attended as a child sat directly in front of the church.  The church no longer stands, but the school still does.  I have a photo of it.

18th Union registration by state

Published by:

107 individuals from 14 states attended 18th Union. Friday’s free events at the Vardy Community Historical Society and Mountain Empire Community College did not require registration but VCHS counted 60 in attendance through the day Friday.  36 attended the Friday evening reception at  MECC. The pie chart represents only those 52 registered for the Saturday conference, but illustrates the overall geographical range of MHA members and conference attendees.  Tennesseeans and Virginians welcomed people from a dozen other states from Texas to Massachusetts.

Johnnie Gibson Rhea, 1931-2014

Published by:

Johnnie Gibson Rhea, beloved elder of the Melungeon community, 1931-2014

Johnnie Clyde Gibson Rhea was born in Lee County Virginia on May 23, 1931, daughter of John and Martha Goins Gibson. She was granddaughter of Andy and Emily Long Gibson and Alex and Merky Collins Goins. She passed away January 18, 2014.

Johnnie was the only permanent lifetime member of MHA.

Johnnie had attended every Melungeon Union since 1997. She had chat sessions from the beginning, always a highlight for so many. This evolved into having her own session at every Union for which folks clamored and always looked forward with anticipation. She received MHA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and proudly showed it to her grandson’s classmates who came on a field trip

Every year, Johnnie was the first person registered to attend Unions.

She was loved for many things including her generosity. Johnnie’s quilts for raffle every year had the winners practically dancing around the room, and many of us treasure also her handmade gifts to the audience during her annual session. She was also generous in crafting items for soldiers from the area including her lap quilts.

Johnnie received a long standing ovation at last summer’s Union – the only person who ever received such an accolade.

Her interviews for radio, films, and scholars from universities contributed greatly to Melungeon studies. As a genealogist, she accepted and talked about the African ancestry within certain families from which she descended before DNA results proved these links. She believed in ‘One People, All Colors’  and proudly claimed kinship to Dr. Irene Moore, African American scholar from Harlan County, KY.

In a New Year’s Day phone call with MHA president S.J. Arthur, Johnnie said she knew she would not be able to attend the next Union, but she was still interested in our upcoming plans.

McNeil Funeral Home in Sneedville is handling the visitation and funeral.  Visitation is scheduled at the funeral home from 5 to 8 P.M. on Tuesday, January 21st, with the funeral also at the funeral home taking place at 2:00 P.M. on Wednesday. 

2014 showing of documentary “The Melungeons of Vardy Valley”

Published by:

MHA Board member Todd Beckham was guest lecturer on mixed race ancestry on February 27, 2014 at  Woods Hole, MA at the Marine Biology Laboratory in a presentation titled The Melungeons of Vardy Valley: Triracial isolates and their 21st century descendants The lecture was sponsored by the The Black History Month Celebration of Woods Hole Diversity Committee and underwritten by Marine Biological LaboratoryNOAA National Marine FisheriesSea Education Association,Woods Hole Oceanographic InstitutionWoods Hole Research Center and US Geological Survey.
The hour long presentation included: a discussion about who Melungeons were and their descendants’ place in the 21st century, a discussion on DNA testing , several readings from K. Paul Johnson’s book “Pell Mellers“, a screening of the film Melungeons produced by Wicked Delicate films in 2013 and a Q and A period .
The presentation was followed by the Harumbee. a multicultural culinary experience.

“Abijah Alley of Long Hollow,” 18th Union presentation by Nancy Gray Schoonmaker

Published by:

As MHA returns this year to the Melungeon heartland, we welcome a presentation on a unique and little-known figure in the history of far Southwest Virginia, whose family belonged to the same small church as the first recorded Melungeons, in Scott County.

Abijah Alley of Long Hollow

Abijah Alley spent several weeks in heaven conversing with angels in the early 1840s. Back home in Long Hollow, he wrote a book about it. The Alleys were deeply religious people, though many like Abijah and his father Thomas before him never settled comfortably in any denomination. Thomas Alley was received into membership in Stony Creek Primitive Baptist Church in 1802, but his religious free thought got him expelled two years later. Abijah became a preacher in his youth, and his seeking and curiosity took him as far west as Ohio and Texas and east to Europe and the Holy Land. He was frequently invited to preach in neighboring churches, and started a sect known as “the little band” that still had adherents in Scott County on the eve of World War II. Somewhere in Long Hollow there should be traces of the home he had built for his family, modeled after Solomon’s temple and surrounded with plants he gathered in the Holy Land.

Nancy Gray Schoonmaker holds a BA in English from Arizona State University and an MA and PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

“Seeking Roots in Shifting Ground,” 18th Union presentation by Laura Tugman, Ph.D.

Published by:

Dr. Laura Tugman will discuss her doctoral dissertation, entitled Seeking Roots in Shifting Ground: Ethnic Identity Development and the Melungeons of Southern Appalachia. Her research examined the experience of Melungeon ethnic identity development through ethnographic interviews with Melungeon individuals in Southern Appalachia. Her study concluded that the identity development process and group dynamics occurring within the Melungeons present challenges to the current multicultural psychology literature regarding ethnic identity development. As recently as the early 1990s, many believed that the Melungeons would soon be completely assimilated into mainstream white America. More recently, the formation of the Melungeon Heritage Association has renewed ethnic pride for many Melungeons who have either previously concealed their heritage—or were not even aware of it—due to a long-standing generational practice of concealing Melungeon heritage. Dr. Tugman examined the ethnic identity development process and life experiences of Melungeons, particularly the impact of social dynamics, both within and outside the group, on self-identification.

Three New Markers for Roanoke-Chowan People

Published by:

Three New Markers for Roanoke-Chowan People.
The North Carolina State Highway Historical Marker program has accepted three nominations made by the Chowan Discovery Group for Roanoke-Chowan people.   This first marker honors the town of Choanoac (Chowanoke) which was the largest coastal town in North Carolina when the second Roanoke Island expedition explored the Chowan River in 1586.  The town was first reported in 1584.  Choanoac, commonly referred to as Chowanoke, was located on the Chowan River at Swain’s Mill Road and the river in the Mount Pleasant community.  Its people were the among the first known residents of what is now Bertie, Gates and Hertford County.
The Chowan Discovery Group coordinated a dedication program that was held on Friday, October 21 at 3pm at the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, during the Meherrin Indian Tribe’s annual powwow.  There are Meherrins who are also Choanoac descendants, and they were present for the program.  The Harrellsville Historical Association and the Chowan Discovery Group sold have books available related to the history of the area.
On January 16, in Duplin County, a marker for Parker David Robbins will be dedicated in Magnolia where he lived for 30 years.  Robbins, a Gates County native and Bertie County resident, was a mechanic and farmer near Colerain.  He served as a sergeant-major in the 2nd Cavalry, United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.  Along with his brother and three cousins, he enlisted at Fort Monroe and he took part in battles from Suffolk to Richmond, eventually riding into Richmond at the end of the war.  Robbins was a representative in the North Carolina State Assembly, served as postmaster in Harrellsville and received two patents while in Harrellsville.  In Duplin County, Robbins was a builder, sawmill owner, and steamship builder and operator.  He was a Choanoac descendant.
The third marker honors Ahoskie and Harrellsville’s Robert Lee Vann, lawyer and publisher.  Vann graduated from Waters Training School in Winton, attended Virginia Union Colllege and University of Pittsburgh.  His newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, was the nation’s largest African American publication with circulation of 250,000 in 1935.  The Courier is still a national newspaper, now 102 years old.  The marker will be dedicated in Ahoskie next year.
For more information on the markers, contact Marvin T. Jones of the Chowan Discovery Group at 202.726.4066 or  For Meherrin Powwow information visit



Arwin Smallwood, Ph.D. article “A History Long Forgotten”

Published by:

Those of us who have been fortunate to hear Dr. Smallwood’s presentations at Melungeon Unions will find much familiar material in this article published by Oklahoma Humanities this summer, “A History Long Forgotten: Intersections of Race in Early America.”  The events calendar has been update to include Dr. Smallwood’s June 2013 trip to Canada as part of the University of Memphis studies abroad program.