107 individuals from 14 states attended 18th Union. Friday’s free events at the Vardy Community Historical Society and Mountain Empire Community College did not require registration but VCHS counted 60 in attendance through the day Friday. 36 attended the Friday evening reception at MECC. The pie chart represents only those 52 registered for the Saturday conference, but illustrates the overall geographical range of MHA members and conference attendees. Tennesseeans and Virginians welcomed people from a dozen other states from Texas to Massachusetts.
Johnnie Gibson Rhea, beloved elder of the Melungeon community, 1931-2014
Johnnie Clyde Gibson Rhea was born in Lee County Virginia on May 23, 1931, daughter of John and Martha Goins Gibson. She was granddaughter of Andy and Emily Long Gibson and Alex and Merky Collins Goins. She passed away January 18, 2014.
Johnnie was the only permanent lifetime member of MHA.
Johnnie had attended every Melungeon Union since 1997. She had chat sessions from the beginning, always a highlight for so many. This evolved into having her own session at every Union for which folks clamored and always looked forward with anticipation. She received MHA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and proudly showed it to her grandson’s classmates who came on a field trip
Every year, Johnnie was the first person registered to attend Unions.
She was loved for many things including her generosity. Johnnie’s quilts for raffle every year had the winners practically dancing around the room, and many of us treasure also her handmade gifts to the audience during her annual session. She was also generous in crafting items for soldiers from the area including her lap quilts.
Johnnie received a long standing ovation at last summer’s Union – the only person who ever received such an accolade.
Her interviews for radio, films, and scholars from universities contributed greatly to Melungeon studies. As a genealogist, she accepted and talked about the African ancestry within certain families from which she descended before DNA results proved these links. She believed in ‘One People, All Colors’ and proudly claimed kinship to Dr. Irene Moore, African American scholar from Harlan County, KY.
In a New Year’s Day phone call with MHA president S.J. Arthur, Johnnie said she knew she would not be able to attend the next Union, but she was still interested in our upcoming plans.
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.
Dr. Laura Tugman will discuss her doctoral dissertation, entitled Seeking Roots in Shifting Ground: Ethnic Identity Development and the Melungeons of Southern Appalachia. Her research examined the experience of Melungeon ethnic identity development through ethnographic interviews with Melungeon individuals in Southern Appalachia. Her study concluded that the identity development process and group dynamics occurring within the Melungeons present challenges to the current multicultural psychology literature regarding ethnic identity development. As recently as the early 1990s, many believed that the Melungeons would soon be completely assimilated into mainstream white America. More recently, the formation of the Melungeon Heritage Association has renewed ethnic pride for many Melungeons who have either previously concealed their heritage—or were not even aware of it—due to a long-standing generational practice of concealing Melungeon heritage. Dr. Tugman examined the ethnic identity development process and life experiences of Melungeons, particularly the impact of social dynamics, both within and outside the group, on self-identification.
Three New Markers for Roanoke-Chowan People.
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.
Those of us who have been fortunate to hear Dr. Smallwood’s presentations at Melungeon Unions will find much familiar material in this article published by Oklahoma Humanities this summer, “A History Long Forgotten: Intersections of Race in Early America.” The events calendar has been update to include Dr. Smallwood’s June 2013 trip to Canada as part of the University of Memphis studies abroad program.
In 2002, Brent Kennedy issued a statement about the first Melungeon DNA study. Excerpt:
The long-awaited DNA results are in and as many of us have maintained, the Melungeons are indeed a mixture of all races and many ethnic groups. The DNA samples in this study represent the oldest, most established Melungeon male and female lines in the Hancock County community, and the Wise County community. Extensive genealogies for these two populations — and those sampled — are known and documented. Respected members of each community assisted in the collection of the samples, and these samples can be examined separately (by community) and compared against one another.
In addition to Native American (approximately 5% of the sample), African (approximately 5%) and European (approximately 83% of the sample, but representing Europeans from north to south), the study also showed approximately 7% of the samples matching populations in Turkey, Syria and northern India. In other words, the surviving genes from Middle Eastern and East Indian ancestors are in equal proportion to those of Native Americans and Africans. My gut feeling is that the original, seventeenth-century percentages of all three groups (i.e., African, Native American, and Middle Eastern/East Indian) were higher than what we’re seeing today. Time, admixture, and out-movement of some of our darker cousins into other minority groups have likely lowered the genetic traces of their earlier presence. But enough of them were there to still be traceable among the Melungeons of today. The long discounted Mediterranean and Middle Eastern heritages are irrefutably there.
In 2010, DNA Consultants issued this report about an autosomal DNA study of Melungeons. Excerpt:
After many years in development, the results of a DNA ancestry project enrolling 40 Melungeons were published and made public, marking the end of an attempt to solve the mystery of a Southern U.S. ethnic group with autosomal DNA.
Seeming to lay to rest an old controversy in American history about Melungeons, the scientific data supporting a genetic mixture of white, American Indian and Sub-Saharan African were placed online today by the organizers of DNA Consultants’ Melungeon DNA Project.
Any media coverage in 2012 purporting to show Melungeons as shocked by evidence of subSaharan African DNA conflicts with this evidence, but also with more than a hundred years of testimony from Melungeons themselves.
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.)