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22nd Union Update

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We are proceeding with plans for 22 nd Union at Big Stone Gap, Virginia and Vardy Community in Tennessee, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, June 21, 22, and 23 rd . There are two changes to the program schedule:

Adriana Trigiani has found she has to be away when she is scheduled to appear on Saturday, June 23 and has graciously offered to appear that day by Skype and also have her sister appear in person. We look forward to seeing and hearing Adriana by Skype and also having her sister with us.

Also, we have a new speaker from 3:00-3:50 p.m. on Saturday, June 23. Carla Harper, author of the novel, Worthy, continues the Road to Goinstown, begun by Julie Williams Dixon and Paul Johnson in Lost Communities: Mixed Race Settlements of the Virginia/Carolina Border from 2:00-2:50 p. m. Important to Melungeon studies, researchers and academicians have for decades drawn parallels to the Goinstown community (located along the Virginia and North Carolina border) and Melungeons. We are pleased to have Julie and Paul in tandem with Carla to bring us the story of this lost community.

For more information, email the Melungeon Heritage Association at

MHA Members by State, 2018

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As the as current membership total is 99, this pie chart with the number of members in each state can almost be considered as percentages as well. With members in 26 states and DC, we are a national organization, but with almost half in Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina we are also clearly a regional one.

Lodging Information and Press Release for 22nd Union

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Lodging for 22nd Union

The Comfort Inn at Big Stone Gap is now full for the dates of 22nd Union, but nearby Wise and Norton have several motels to choose from.

The Wise County Chamber of Commerce has an online directory of hotels, motels, and other lodging options throughout the county.

Melungeons Hold Annual Gathering in June

Best-selling author, television writer, and film director Adriana Trigiani will be the featured speaker at the 22nd annual gathering of the Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA). The event will take place on the last weekend in June in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and the Vardy Community in Hancock County, Tennessee. “It’s a gathering of Melungeons,” says MHA president Scott Withrow, “but everyone is welcome, whether you have Melungeon ancestry or just an interest in Appalachian history.”

The Melungeons are a mixed-ethnic group first documented in the Clinch River region of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia at the beginning of the 19th century. Most researchers have assumed the Melungeons were of mixed African, Native American, and European ancestry, but theories and legends about the Melungeons included descent from Portuguese adventurers, Spanish explorers, shipwrecked sailors or pirates, Muslims, Jews, and others. Because of their uncertain ancestry, the Melungeons faced legal and social discrimination through the mid-20th century. In recent years, Melungeon descendants have embraced their heritage and meet annually to listen to research presentations and share genealogies.

Melungeon characters have appeared in several recent works of fiction, including Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap (2000, Random House), set in Trigiani’s Virginia hometown. The book was made into a film in 2015, directed by Trigiani and starring Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg,Jenna Elfman,and Jasmine Guy. Trigiani has published 14 novels and two memoirs. She has also written scripts for television shows and was the writer and executive producer of City Kids for ABC/Jim Henson Productions, and oversaw the Lifetime television special Growing Up Funny and the Showtime series Linc’s.

The Melungeon Heritage Association gathering, entitled 22nd Union, will begin at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, June 21st, in Dalton-Cantrell Hall at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap. Author and historian Marvin Jones will offer presentations on the mixed ethnic community of Winton Triangle in eastern North Carolina. Forest Hazel will discuss the efforts of the Occaneechi Tribe of Virginia to gain federal recognition, and filmmaker and photographer Julie Williams Dixon will present her film Melungeon Voices and her photography exhibit, “People and Their People.” The evening will end with a 7:00 p.m. showing of the film Big Stone Gap.

On Friday, June 22nd, participants will travel by carpool or on their own to the Vardy Community in Hancock County, Tennessee, long recognized for its Melungeon population. The Vardy community was the site of a Presbyterian mission that served Melungeons during the first half of the 20th century, and a tour of the site will begin at 10:00 a.m. Author and Vardy historian DruAnna Overbay will present “Vardy: A Sense of Place” at 1:00 p.m. That evening at 6:00 p.m., a reception will be held at the Southwest Virginia Historical Museum State Park in Big Stone Gap, followed by family group discussions for those interested in exploring their own possible Melungeon connections.

Saturday, June 23rd, will open at 8:45 a.m. in Dalton-Cantrell Hall at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap. Adriana Trigiani will begin with a presentation entitled “An Appalachian Childhood in Big Stone Gap/Melungeons in Fiction.” Dr. Terry Mullins will present “One Melungeon Family’s Clinch Valley Odyssey,” and Dr. Arwin Smallwood will discuss “The Great Tuscarora Diaspora.” After lunch, Julie Williams Dixon and Paul Johnson will present “Lost Communities: Mixed Race Settlements of the Virginia/Carolina Border,” and Dr. Edward Davis IV will offer “From Melange in Angola to Melungeons of America.” Filmmaker Heather Andolina will discuss her documentary-in-progress about the Melungeons, followed by a general meeting of the Melungeon Heritage Association.

Registration for 22nd Union is $10 for any or all of the three days. Pre-registration information, as well as information about MHA and the presenters, is available online at Participants may also register on-site. Pre-registration is required for anyone who wants lunch at Vardy on Friday, June 22nd. Lodging information in Big Stone Gap is also available on the MHA website.


Adriana Trigiani to Speak at 22nd Melungeon Union in Big Stone Gap, Virginia

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The Melungeon Heritage Association will meet on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 21, 22, and 23, 2018 in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Keynote speaker for the annual conference is Adriana Trigiani, author of the Big Stone Gap series, including Big Stone Gap (2000), Big Cherry Holler (2001), Milk Glass Moon (2002), and Home to Big Stone Gap (2006) and director of the movie, Big Stone Gap. Ms. Trigiani will speak Saturday on the topic, “An Appalachian Childhood in Big Stone Gap/Melungeons in Fiction.” She is the perfect keynote speaker for this year’s theme, “Migration and Sense of Place.” [PLEASE NOTE: Ms. Trigiani now will be in Scotland directing a film during 22nd Union but will appear at the scheduled time via Skype, with her sister present in Big Stone Gap at the Union.]

Registration is $10 for any or all of the meeting days, which include a pre-conference program at Mountain Empire Community College on Thursday, June 21; a program at Vardy Community Historical Society in Tennessee on Friday, June 22; an evening reception and family group discussions at the Southwest Virginia Museum State Park; and speakers at Mountain Empire Community College on Saturday, June 23.

The Melungeon Heritage Association invites anyone to attend, whether they simply have an interest in Melungeon and regional ancestry, think they have Melungeon ancestry, or have documented Melungeon ancestry.

Also appearing for the first time this year as Union presenters are Dr. Edward Davis and Forest Hazel. Speakers returning to Union who are familiar to MHA members are (in alphabetical order) Julie Williams Dixon, K. Paul Johnson, Marvin T. Jones, Lynda Davis Logan, Dr. Terry Mullins and Dr. Arwin Smallwood. The schedule also includes several events in a non-lecture format such as a photography exhibit from Julie Williams Dixon, a tour of Vardy, and a showing of the film Big Stone Gap. Registration information and a more detailed schedule with presentation topics will be posted by late winter/early spring.

In Memory of Claude Collins (March 19, 1927-February 15, 2017)

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Mr. W. C. “Claude” Collins, long-time and beloved board member of MHA, passed away Wednesday, February 15, 2017.     A service of celebration for his life was held at Sneedville (Tennessee) United Methodist Church on Saturday, February 18, 2017, 6:00 p. m.


Claude lived and worked in Hancock County his entire life. A graduate of the masters program at the University of Tennessee, he worked in the Hancock County Educational System for 45 years as a teacher and then a food service director.

Those who knew Claude may remember that he attended Vardy School and told stories of his hardscrabble life growing up on Newman’s Ridge –of walking down a mountain path in mornings to attend school—and how those teachers and leaders at Vardy School inspired him to become a life-long educator.   Presented the first life-time achievement award from MHA, he was as genuine as they come and a mentor to many.     

One person remembered him as the “best of people”—one with “spunk and a positive outlook on life.”  This person remembered thinking once:  “I’d like to be more like Claude.  Maybe I am a better person for having known him.”   

We who knew Claude are all better people for the experience.

Congratulations to Arwin D. Smallwood, Ph.D., on his return to North Carolina

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MHA congratulates Professor Smallwood, formerly of the University of Memphis, for his return to his home state as head of theHistory Department of North Carolina A & T State University in Greensboro. Although the scope of Dr. Smallwood’s research is international, his specialized knowledge of eastern North Carolina has been the highlight of presentations at Melungeon Unions since 2009. As department head at a historically Black university in North Carolina, he brings unique expertise to make the state’s multiracial heritage better understood in coming generations.

Johnnie’s Story, by Johnnie Clyde Gibson Rhea

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Johnnie’s Story

By Johnnie Clyde Gibson Rhea

On May 23, 1931, I was born in Virginia to John and Martha Goins Gibson.  My grandparents were Andy and Emily Long Gibson and Alex and Merky Collins Goins.  I have researched back to my 6th grandparents.

My parents owned one car back in the late 30’s.  They never had another one so we did a lot of walking.

I was raised on Blackwater and Newman’s Ridge.  We never owned a tractor; it was a red mule!  I went to school at Elm Springs, Vardy, Sneedville and Howard Quarter School; never got through the 7th grade.

I washed on a washboard and cooked on a woodstove.  I sawed wood to cook with and to keep warm.  I washed by a spring and carried water because we never had running water in the house or an inside toilet.  I plowed with a mule, I turned ground, I shocked hay, worked on strawstacks, threshed wheat, cut corn, and pulled fodder corn.  I made my toys out of corn stalk.  I walked to school 2 miles there and back and was picked up by a truck for 4 miles there and back, to go to school.  I used a cut of saw to cut wood for wood to sell.  My games at night were by a coal oil lamp where we played Hully Gully with parched corn.  I took a bath in an old wash tub on Saturday night.  We had an old victrola with a Carter Family record.  We finally got a Sears Roebuck radio run by a battery that lasted three months.  We never had a store bought sled or wagon, but would go to the woods and make  our sled and wagon from wood.  We lived in the woods, and never learned to climb a tree or swing on a grapevine.  I had to pull weeds for the hogs to eat.  We had two hogs killed in the fall and two cows gave milk and butter.  All we bought from the store was a little coffee, salt and sugar.  Taking history back, we grew our own corn and wheat for making our flour for bread, made molasses and maple syrup. To dye our clothes, we used walnuts, rye or goldenrod.  We had to spin our wool from sheep.  We made our quilts out of worn clothes to keep warm.  We lived in a house that when it came a snow we would wake up with snow on our bed.  We  had chickens to kill and eat, and sold eggs. You made your own food to eat in the winter out of the garden, berries and apples; we dried our beans or we would go hungry.  I can say I never went to bed hungry or went naked.

I had good parents that provided for me.  I am thankful for that.  We didn’t have anything fancy.  We just had a phone, old rough stuff to eat, didn’t go to the store for food.  We didn’t have any electricity.  We had a spring where we put milk and butter we made.  Three times a day we brought it to the table and took it back to the spring.  The spring was our refrigeration.

So—I was that Melungeon, raised up poor and hard, still Melungeon made and proud to be one, too!

Johnnie  (Johnnie Clyde Gibson Rhea)

This was shared by a friend of Johnnie on the occasion of her passing. She was the heart and soul of Melungeon Unions so it is being posted in the Unions section of the forum-ed

Tributes to Johnnie Rhea from members and friends of MHA

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For all of us involved in Melungeon research, the loss of Johnnie Rhea is like the closing of a library.  She was my mentor and my greatest supporter in the search for my own Collins family roots.  Johnnie had incredible knowledge and an encyclopedic memory of the genealogy of East Tennessee families along with a willingness to freely share that knowledge with others.  But most of all Johnnie was a person of impeccable character who brought great joy into the lives of those of us who shared a friendship with her.  Sue and I certainly feel blessed to have been among the friends of Johnnie Rhea.

Phil and Sue Collins


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Johnnie Gibson Rhea was the heart and soul of Melungeon Unions for the years I’ve attended, and her absence will be keenly felt by all members and friends of MHA. Just seeing Johnnie at the beginning of a Union lifted our spirits, and her Saturday afternoon sessions made a wonderful grand finale as she shared her memories and her handmade crafts.  There may have been disputes involving other prominent figures in the Melungeon movement, but EVERYONE loved Johnnie and that is indisputable. Her loving, generous presence will be long remembered by friends throughout the United States.

Paul Johnson

Johnnie Rhea was just a special lady!!!  I only met her for the first time in 2009 in Logan, but so looked forward to seeing her every year there after!!!

Last year when she told all of us that it would be her last Union I was heartbroken… BUT it won’t be her last Union because from now on she will be there with all of us – even if by Spirit…  looking down on all that we do and say and I just hope and pray that we can continue to ‘make her proud’ of our Melungeon Heritage Association group.

RIP dear Johnnie…

all my love, Lynda

from Gloria Gibson Sullivan,
My sister Dawn Gibson and I first met Johnnie in 2010 in Vardy.  We both were met with open arms by both Johnnie Rhea and Claude Collins outside Mahala Mullins cabin.  The 1st question we were asked was “so what Gibson line are you from?”  It took a minute for me to pull out my papers and then Johnnie and I sat in the church while she poured over the names…she finally said “you know I don’t think I know your line of Gibson’s”.  I was heartbroken.  My husband and I then saw her again at the MHA conference in Big Stone Gap and then again in Wytheville and at the hotel it was she who said “I know you from the visit in Vardy”…I almost cryed.  She wanted those papers that I had showed her before and I handed them right over.  She will live in my heart as the most gracious person and an example of thoughtfulness.
2 pictures attached

When I think of Johnnie I remember most of all her smile. And, the words genuine, generous, accepting, and trustworthy come to mind. I remember her donation of quilts and her love for genealogical research and her publications. I remember, too, her generosity to a young Turkish man who traveled from the Logan Union to Sneedville to connect with Melungeon history. I’m sure she left him with a good impression of the area and the people. She was a friend to many, those near and far. I look back with delight on having known Johnnie and talking with her at Unions over the years. She was always genuine and generous.

Scott Withrow

I became acquainted with Johnnie after the first MHA union.  A very close friendship developed from then on thru  the years.  When I first visited Johnnie in her home, I was amazed of all the valuable books, manuscripts, and records she had accumulated.

She later located my 4th generation family and sent me down the road of discovery.  Her extensive knowledge of the families in that area was as if you were reading in an encyclopedia.

Her kindness, compassion and beautiful, gentle spirit will always hold a special place in my life.  She is a giant in my admiration for her and her accomplishments.  She was genuine, one of my best friends.  We had weekly telephone visits and always ended our conversation with “I love you”, so dear friend I say once more “I love you”

Shirley & Chuck Hutsell

Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Keneally

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A MUST READ for all interested in Melungeons. Prepublication reviews from Publisher’s Weeklyand Kirkus Reviews were encouraging but did not mention the thirteenth of fourteen chapters, which is about Melungeons and features extensive interviews with former MHA President Wayne Winkler.  I just received a new Kindle as a gift and this was the first book I bought for it, of course going right to the Melungeon chapter.  This is something many of us have looked forward to– a major New York trade publisher giving an accurate, sympathetic, fair explanation of Melungeon history and DNA issues.  The book is likely to garner more rave reviews and respectable sales.  I will add quotes from reviews but for now just want to alert MHA members and all Melungeons that Wayne did a superlative job at presenting Melungeon history and the current issues facing descendants.–KPJ

Here is a youtube discussion by Ms. Kenneally of her book.