Category Archives: Melungeon Unions

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 amazon.com and through Margaret Media at www.margaretmedia.com

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. 

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

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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.

AP story about 2012 DNA study discussed at 16th Union

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DNA Study seeks origin of Appalachia’s Melungeons

In today’s article, Travis Loller of the Associated Press interviewed Roberta Estes and Jack Goins, two of the coauthors of the study’s report, and Wayne Winkler, who will appear at this year’s 16th Union.

 

comment by K. Paul Johnson:

Having attended the last four Unions and met almost all MHA members, I can report that the African roots of Melungeons have always been part of the general knowledge base of the organization in my experience.  [Celebrated and honored, not just grudgingly acknowledged.] The topic has been discussed frankly in our FAQ for years. Each of the last several Unions has featured African American researchers exploring the topic of Melungeons and Melungeon-related groups. This year’s 16th Union will feature an opening lecture by Dr. Arwin Smallwood of the University of Memphis, whose past presentations have been very popular with MHA members. His research emphasizes the possible Native American roots of Melungeons, a topic that is not a simple matter of whites trying to deny African ancestry by substituting a false Indian claim, but rather a shared quest for Native roots by both black and white southerners exploring their mixed ancestry.

(Dr. Smallwood is a Consultant to the MHA Board of Directors and has appeared at the last three Unions, in West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina respectively.  This portrait gallery from MHA Consultant Marvin T. Jones shows him at his first Union, in 2009, with many other speakers including Dr. Smallwood, and “one people, all colors” in action.)

Radio documentary from 16th Union by Mary Helen Miller

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“A Code to Live by in Appalachia”– radio documentary covering 16th Union, Vardy, and more

Last summer, reporter Mary Helen Miller came to Big Stone Gap to share the experience of 16th Melungeon Union at the Southwest Virginia Historical Museum State Park. She interviewed many of us and was enthusiastic in her interest. Melungeons enjoyed talking to her as will be evident in her long discussions with Johnnie Rhea, at Vardy as well as in Virginia.  Prior to the Union, Mary Helen spoke to Jack Goins about the recent DNA study about which Wayne Winkler gave a presentation on Saturday.  MHA members Claude Collins, Julie Williams Dixon, and Jim Morefield are among the voices heard in this short documentary.

The radio program can be heard here and the related article here. Mary Helen Miller is a producer/reporter with WUTC, Chattanooga’s public radio station.

(one correction– total attendance at 16th Union was almost double the 30 estimated in the documentary; 48 registrations, 11 presenters.)

Coalfield Progress report on Terry Mullins at 16th Union

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Author offers mountain research, writing tips (Katie Dunn, Staff Writer, Coalfield Progress)

BIG STONE GAP — The southern Appalachians are a region rich in culture and history, attributes that author and educator Terry Mullins said make researching and writing about them an “illuminating” experience.

Mullins, a native of Tazewell and associate professor of education at Concord University in Athens, W.Va., has authored several books, many about places in Southwest Virginia.

He was one of several speakers featured last weekend at the Melungeon Heritage Association’s 16th union, which was held at the Southwest Virginia History Museum and State Park in Big Stone Gap. In past years, Mullins has presented an overview of the Melungeon people, but this year decided to focus on what resources to use when researching and writing about the mountains for historical and genealogical purposes.

“Researching and writing in the mountains is exhilarating,” he told the audience. “It’s exciting and, to me, it’s challenging, and I hope you will try to do some of it yourself, if you haven’t already.”

Below are some of the tips Mullins gave:

• When recording stories, no matter the subject, make sure you’re inspired to write about that subject and be sure you can find information about it.

• Write about what you know. Mullins’ first book, Pisgah United Methodist Church, Two Centuries of Faith was about his hometown church in Tazewell, which celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1993.

• When researching the history of a church or organization, inquire about its records. Depending on the denomination, district and conference reports might be available, as well as denominational compilations (membership numbers and other information that offers a feel for that church’s history). Mullins mentioned the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church archives at Emory and Henry College, which offer quite a bit of information about Methodist churches in Southwest Virginia and Eastern Tennessee.

• When researching his book, Bishop, Virginia-West Virginia, a Coalfield Community and Its School, Mullins took advantage of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives, a special collection of resources related to the coal industry housed in the Craft Memorial Library in Bluefield, W.Va.

• Businesses and corporations, as well as ethnic and other special interest groups, such as the Melungeon Heritage Association, might have resources not readily available elsewhere.

• Local historical societies harbor invaluable information.

• County courthouses in Virginia keep marriage, divorce, probate and civil court records from the beginning of the county, as well as birth and death records.

• Newspaper archives can reveal what was happening in a community at a particular time.

• Public and college libraries often have state and region-specific sections. Public libraries might have obituary indices, local and family history files, census records and vertical files. Several nearby colleges that have Virginia or Appalachian collections or Appalachian Studies programs include Appalachian State University, Virginia Tech, Radford University, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, the University of Kentucky, Marshall University and East Tennessee State University.

• Photo archives can be helpful, such as the Library of Virginia and Virginia Tech’s digital library and archives.

• The internet harbors digitized photo archives, historical records, as well as online access libraries, digital projects and genealogy databases.

• Museums have written records, photos/images, thematic files, gallery collections, dioramas and artifacts, all of which might not be on display.

• Oral histories, eyewitness accounts, audio- and video-taped interviews can help uncover information that might otherwise be unknown.

© thecoalfieldprogress.com 2012 (with thanks from MHA for permission to archive this article from July 6, 2012 online)

Coalfield Progress story about DNA report at 16th Union

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DNA study a hot topic at gathering (Katie Dunn, Staff Writer, the Coalfield Progress)

BIG STONE GAP — While a controversial study published earlier this year offers hints as to the ancestral origins of the Melungeons, some of the group’s membership maintains that much of the mystery surrounding their heritage still remains.

The study was among the topics discussed at the Melungeon Heritage Association’s 16th union, “Home to the Hills: Melungeon Heritage and Appalachian Communities,” held last weekend at the Southwest Virginia History Museum and State Park in Big Stone Gap.

The event featured 11 speakers, including Wayne Winkler, past president of the association, who spoke in part about the controversy surrounding the study, “Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population,” which was published in April in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy.

THE STUDY

Historically, “Melungeon” was a derogatory term used to describe several families of unknown ancestry who lived primarily in Hawkins and Hancock counties of Tennessee and in southern Lee County.

The mystery surrounding the Melungeons has long been debated. Some theories purport that the Melungeons were part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony, the Ottoman Turks, Native Americans, Portuguese, escaped slaves, Juan Pardo’s or Hernando de Soto’s expeditions, and the list goes on. Meanwhile, Melungeon families have claimed to be Native American, Portuguese and white.

The study attempted to gain more insight into the group’s ancestral origins through DNA testing. Those tested were selected from a small group of descendants whose surnames are most commonly associated with Melungeon ancestry. In order for a surname to be included in the study, at least one historical record from the 1800s and early 1900s — such as census, court and voting records or tax lists — related to Hawkins and Hancock counties or adjacent areas had to exist that stated the family was considered to be Melungeon.

The study’s authors note that a participant also had to be a paternal descendent “from an individual within this core group of surnames from the relevant counties, or their direct ancestors.”

The paternal DNA tests revealed that subjects were of both European and African origin. The female, or mitochondrial DNA, lines tested yielded only European ancestry, however.

Winkler, whose Melungeon connection is through his father’s family, said the study shows that at least some Melungeon families have African ancestors. A lot of people, including the association, have always accepted this, he said, but until now have had no verification.

DEBATE

Winkler was not a subject of the study nor did he help with the project, but he was interested in the research.

“One of the things that was pointed out by this study is that it was a very narrow focus, very narrow in terms of who was eligible for the study, and that was intentional,” he said. “No one was ever trying to restrict the definition of Melungeons to this small group.” Instead, he reasoned that the authors were looking to establish a baseline to help better define who Melungeons are and what can be genetically said about their ancestry.

An article written by the Associated Press concerning the study has generated some controversy regarding these findings, and Winkler also addressed this.

While he called the article accurate, he said there is a difference between being accurate and true. The article missed a lot of important background information, he said, and did not mention several nuances noted in the 108-page study. It also seemed to definitively state that Melungeons did not have Native American ancestry, which Winkler said the study does not express.

Julie Williams Dixon, a filmmaker who was also a presenter at the conference, said she gave Jack Goins and the study’s other authors a lot of credit, but wished they had been “more savvy in controlling the AP article.” Dixon, a Wise County native, filmed the documentary, Melungeon Voices.

“You can’t understate the damage that that article did,” she said. “I personally believe that they should have come forward after that article and written a counterstatement because the AP article was extremely poor reporting, so all their good work is not going to get its due unless they come forward.”

MILESTONE

Winkler noted that some people have also criticized the methodology used in the study, but said this is how academia works. If someone finds an issue with how the study was written, he encouraged them to write their own paper and submit it to the same peer review.

One person in a blog post even suggested the study was false and that it was a war on “Indian heritage” and “sheer genocidal activity” against Native American groups of Appalachia.

“Genocide is a pretty strong term to use for a dispute about an academic paper,” said Winkler. “There are people who have been touched by genocide, who have lost families to genocide. Using that term is inappropriate.” He also mentioned that Goins has researched Melungeons for three decades, and he finds it difficult to believe that Goins would invest all his time and effort into publishing a false study.

Despite the debate surrounding the study, Winkler said he believes it is a milestone in Melungeon research and provides a foundation for future inquiries. It’s also important that these studies be done now, since individuals considered to be Melungeons are disappearing as an identifiable group. He said trying to find those who had an unbroken male line dating back to 1830 was difficult.

At the close of Winkler’s presentation, one audience member asked him what he thought this and other DNA studies have contributed to living a Melungeon experience.

Winkler paused and then responded that he didn’t know that this knowledge would have made any difference in the way his grandmother or great-grandparents lived. “Those of us who have had our DNA tested, we don’t live on Newman’s Ridge without a telephone and television and indoor plumbing, which is a big part of the historic Melungeon experience, a big part of the historic Appalachian experience,” he said. “For people today, it’s just our wanting to know more about our ancestry. We’re kind of living that Melungeon life a little vicariously through what we learned about our ancestors.

“DNA helps us to visualize who they might have been, where some of these ancestors might have come from, but I don’t think it really makes much difference in how we see ourselves.”

reposted from the July 6, 2012 edition with permission from:
© thecoalfieldprogress.com 2012