Melungeon Heritage Association plans gathering in North Carolina– Johnson City Press

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From Dylan Chesser in the Johnson City Press, a story dated May 25, opening paragraph excerpted below: A group of people historically estranged because their ancestry did not fit into accepted United States ethnic categories is trying to spread awareness of their history and reconnect with their roots.

Read more: Melungeon Heritage Association plans gathering in North Carolina | …… 
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Melungeons Explore Mysterious Heritage at Local Gathering– Asheville CItizen-Times

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The first local publicity for 19th Union has appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times this week.  The opening sentences are:

The dark-skinned mountaineers whose origins are shrouded in mystery will be returning to Asheville next month.

The Melungeon Heritage Association will hold its 19th annual meeting at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa June 26 and 27.

The Melungeons are a group of mixed ethnic ancestry first documented in northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. Similar groups of “mysterious” people, or at least remnants of these groups, are found all along the Atlantic seaboard. Anthropologists called them “racial islands” or “tri-racial isolates.”

See the rest of the article at:…

“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


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