Category Archives: Melungeon Unions

“The Melungeons Got Me!– and I Couldn’t Have Been More Tickled!

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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!”

MECC Announces Donations, Creation of Center for Melungeon Research

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This exciting news was a highlight of the closing portion of 18th Union in Big Stone Gap, a true milestone moment for Melungeon studies.  The MECC announcement opens with these words:

Big Stone Gap, VA — Mountain Empire Community College is pleased to announce three major donations that will establish the college as a major center for the collection of Melungeon research materials.

The Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA) announced plans to donate copies of all of the organization’s publications, videos and audios of presenters recorded during the last 17 years of Melungeon Union Gatherings, as well as all organizational paperwork collected since the organization’s formation. In addition, the college will receive the organization’s collection of memorabilia from past Melungeon Unions. 

Further excellent news is found in the rest of the announcement here.

18th Union Announcement

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The 18th Melungeon Union will be held June 27th and 28th in Vardy, Tennessee and Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The Vardy Community Historical Society invites MHA members and the public to a celebration on Friday, June 27th at its historical museum in the former Vardy church, and the nearby restored Mullins cabin.  Festivities will begin at 10 am.  On Saturday, June 28th, the Melungeon Heritage Association will sponsor a day of programs at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, including five author presentations and a members meeting.

One highlight of the Vardy presentations will be a showing of the 2013 documentary THE MELUNGEONS OF VARDY VALLEY  directed by Ian Cheney and co-produced by Marilyn Cheney and Todd Beckham. Beckham will be present to speak on the making of the film, which follows the quest of Troy Williams to understand his Melungeon heritage through DNA testing, with mixed reactions from family members. With an original soundtrack, black-and-white watercolor graphics and HD cinematography from the ridges and hollows of north-east Tennessee, the film is an intimate portrait of community, ancestry, and family.

A full day of activities  begins Saturday morning at 9 am at the Goodloe Center, Mountain Empire Community College (see map at link and directions below). Five scholarly presentations will address Melungeon history and identity from a variety of perspectives. Laura Tugman,Ph.D. will discuss her doctoral dissertation for Fielding Graduate University, “Seeking Roots in Shifting Ground: Ethnic Identity Development and the Melungeons of Appalachia.”  Nancy Gray Schoonmaker, Ph.D, will tell the intriguing story of “Abijah Alley of Long Hollow,” subject of a chapter in a forthcoming collection Con Artists, Enthusiasts, and True Believers. Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman, Ph.D.will explain DNA testing and Melungeon ancestry. Arwin Smallwood, Ph.D., now head of the history department at North Carolina A&T University, will describe ongoing reseach on mixed ancestry communities of North Carolina.  Tammy Stachowicz, Ph.D. will discuss her 2013 dissertation for Antioch University on the Melungeon movement.

There is no charge for the Vardy activities, but we encourage donations of $5 to support the work of VCHS.  Box lunches will be available for $5, but need to be reserved a week in advance. (No need to pay in advance but inform us in advance if you wish to have a box lunch, at A “meet the authors” reception will he held at Goodloe Center, MECC, from 6 to 7:30 Friday evening, registration required but free of charge and open to the public. Books about Melungeons and related topics will be for sale, and many authors will be present, further details to be announced soon.

Registration for the Saturday conference is $10, waived for all college and high school students, and also for faculty and staff of MECC. Preregistration is encouraged but not required. Members may join by mail, sending  a membership form to MHA at P.O. Box 3604, Martinsville, VA 24115 with a check or money order for $12 dues.  They may also pay dues through Paypal (see BUY NOW button) and email their membership forms to

A special $79.90 rate for 18th Union conferees is available at the Holiday Inn, Norton, VA  and we encourage those needing overnight accommodations to reserve their rooms as soon as possible. When calling the Holiday Inn reservations number 1-877-410-6667 at the above link, mention MHA and the Melungeon gathering to get the group rate. Address: 1051 Park Ave NW, Norton, VA 24273 Phone:(276) 679-6655.

Driving Directions 

Mountain Empire Community College is located on U.S. Highway 23 South in Wise County, in the southwestern tip of Virginia between Kentucky and Tennessee. MECC’s address is 3441 Mountain Empire Road, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219.

MECC is located on the right just past the second Big Stone Gap, Virginia exit (there are only two Big Stone Gap exits), on southbound US Highway 23.

MECC is located roughly 12.5 miles north of Duffield, Virginia, situated on the left as you drive north on US Highway 23.

A registration form for 18th Union is attached, followed by an MHA membership application, for those interested in attending.

Registration18th Union.txt


16th Union Report

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(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.

17th Union Report

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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.

17th Union Press Release

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New Documentary Film about Tennessee’s Melungeons to show in Wytheville at Melungeon Heritage Association’s 17th Union: A Melungeon Gathering

Wytheville Meeting Center, 333 Community Blvd, Wytheville, VA 24382.

The Melungeons of Vardy Valley,” a 25-minute film by award-winning filmmaker

Ian Cheney, premiered at the 2013 Nashville Film Festival in April

Wytheville (June 17, 2013) – The new film THE MELUNGEONS OF VARDY VALLEY explores the history of a unique tri-racial Appalachian community struggling to understand its roots. When Troy Williams, who grew up in remote Vardy Valley, TN, decides to undergo DNA testing to explore his mixed-race ancestry, his family is divided over the implications. For years, even the word “Melungeon” was taboo in an area where mixed-race individuals were marginalized, stigmatized, and in some cases denied the right to vote, inter-marry, or own property.

THE MELUNGEONS OF VARDY VALLEY follows Williams’ own quest while chronicling the legends and rumors that have swirled around the community since the 18th century. With an original soundtrack, black-and-white watercolor graphics and HD cinematography from the ridges and hollows of north-east Tennessee, the film is an intimate portrait of community, ancestry, and family.

On Saturday, June 29th, the film will air as part of the Melungeon Heritage Association’s 17th Union, and be followed by a panel of filmmakers and film participants, including Vardy’s Troy WIlliams, DruAnna Williams Overbay, Claude Collins, and filmmakers Todd Beckham, Marilyn Cheney and Ian Cheney. 

Other sessions at the Union on Friday and Saturday will deal with different aspects of what it means to be a Melungeon today, and how history has shaped the group. Speakers will include MHA President S.J. Arthur, genealogical researcher Jeanne Bornefeld, Dr Elizabeth Hirschman (Rutgers University), author K. Paul Johnson, Dr Kathy Lyday (Elon University), MHA Treasurer and genealogical researcher Phyllis Morefield, Dr Terry W Mullins (Concord University), Johnnie Gibson Rhea (interviewed in a new public radio documentary about Melungeon DNA), Dr Arwin Smallwood (University of Memphis), Stacy Webb of the Redbone Heritage Association, author Wayne Winkler, and Scott Withrow (North Greenville University).

The Melungeon Heritage Association was established in 1998 and holds annual Unions to celebrate and study the heritage of mixed-race communities and groups throughout the southern and eastern United States. This year’s Union, the 17th, will take place from 9 am through 5 pm on Friday, June 28 and from 9 am through 3 pm on Saturday, June 29. Friday activities are free of charge to MHA members (new members are invited to join; dues are $12/year.) Full day registration on Saturday is $10, or $5 for just the film and panel in the afternoon. The screening will begin at 1:30 on Saturday, June 29.

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

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 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

18th Union registration by state

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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.

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

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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.