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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.

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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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDCG0bfFlqQ

Mattie Ruth Johnson, 1944-2014

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

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

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

Johnnie Gibson Rhea, 1931-2014

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

 http://vimeo.com/84550978

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

Johnnie was the only permanent lifetime member of MHA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 showing of documentary “The Melungeons of Vardy Valley”

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

Three New Markers for Roanoke-Chowan People

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