Thanks fo Wayne Winkler, Lisa Alther, and Arwin Smallwood for providing facts and insights for this interview by wcyb’s Olivia Caridi: http://www.wcyb.com/news/researchers-discuss-origins-of-melungeon-h…
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 email@example.com.) 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
COMING FROM THE NORTH
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.
COMING FROM THE SOUTH
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.
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.
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
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.
Replies to This Discussion
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.
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.
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
(Johnnie Rhea and Rose Trent at 16th Union– photo courtesy of Julie Williams Dixon)
16th Union at the Southwest Virginia Historical Museum State Park
Report by K. Paul Johnson
Every Melungeon Union combines an extended family reunion with a scholarly conference featuring authors and researchers sharing the latest perspectives on our heritage. All presenters come at their own expense, as volunteers receiving no compensation or travel costs, as do MHA members who organize and direct the conference. We travel considerable distances to attend this annual event, to learn and celebrate this heritage we share and treasure.
New this year at 16th Union was a preconference free and open to the public on Friday, June 29th called “Discover Your Melungeon Heritage” and featuring Johnnie Gibson Rhea, Phyllis Morefield, Phyllis Starnes, and me (KPJ). The Museum Parlor in which we met had 50 seats, and 10 more had to be brought in to handle the crowd. This while some were outside at the book table and registration tent, so overall Friday attendance was much higher than the 40 or so typical of recent years. However, the most extreme weather in a long time caused attendance to decline Saturday rather than increase as in past experience, as the event had been advertised as occurring outdoors on the lawn, and temperatures were well over 100 in Wise County by afternoon. 45 or so conferees fit comfortably indoors in the air conditioning and enjoyed some very colorful stories about Appalachian communities – true and fictional—throughout the Saturday presentations. And some continued to be working outdoors even in the grueling heat Saturday, most notably MHA President S.J. Arthur and Registrar Jim Morefield.
No one represents Melungeon heritage in quite the way that Johnnie Gibson Rhea does, since she is a native Virginian who has spent almost all her life in Tennessee and is known and loved by Melungeons in both states. Johnnie welcoming the conferees with stories of her family heritage on Newman’s Ridge, as a Gibson, Collins, and Goins descendant, set the tone for an informal and fun afternoon of genealogical explorations. With Claude Collins and Rose Trent, who organized the reception following the preconference, Johnnie made everyone feel a warm welcome to match the temperatures.
Phyllis Morefield had a cornucopia of news about online genealogical research, thanks to her recent work as a volunteer at the MHA booth in Cincinnati where the National Genealogical Society was holding its annual conference. MHA thanks Phyllis both for her hard work in Cincinnati and Big Stone Gap and for the entertaining presentation in which she shared tips and stories about genealogical research.
My presentation on links between Pell Mellers and Melungeons began with family stories, examined genealogical evidence, and concluded with a description of DNA testing and its mixed results in answering historical questions about my own mixed ancestry. This was intended as a preview of the keynote address, since my genealogical quest centered on the same county in North Carolina, Bertie, about which Dr. Smallwood had written a book in 2002 and which continues to be a research focus for him.
Phyllis Starnes spoke informally about the promises and pitfalls of genetic testing for genealogical research, helping us through the labyrinth of Y-DNA, mitochondrial, and autosomal studies of Melungeons. We owe Phyllis thanks for generating more questions in the q&a than the rest of us combined, and for answering them deftly and capably.
Arwin D. Smallwood, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Colonial American History at the University of Memphis, was the keynote speaker at 13th Union in 2009, and has been a presenter in every subsequent Union, returning this year at 16th to give a keynote address that featured new dimensions of the research he has been pursuing for several years on the Tuscarora tribe’s diaspora from his native Bertie County. This year Dr. Smallwood included a detailed accounting of Virginia’s legal oppression of people of color, a tightening noose of restrictions throughout the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. This becomes a factor in the migration of African-European mixed families southward into North Carolina and westward into mountainous regions of Virginia, away from the plantations and slavery and into frontier communities where they interblended with Indians who had likewise been displaced. MHA is indebted to Dr. Smallwood for his ongoing work which tends to incorporate the traditionally-accepted triracial explanation of Melungeon origins with the more exotic possibilities of Mediterranean ancestry suggested by folklore. He was extensively interviewed by a local newspaper reporter so we look forward to seeing the coverage.
Dr. Terry Mullins opened the Saturday proceedings with a perspective on Appalachian community histories from an author who has made many contributions in this field. His doctoral dissertation, on Bishop Virginia/West Virginia, was published by Overmountain press in 1996, and he has since coauthored photographic histories of Tazewell County, Virginia and of four communities within that county: Tazewell (2006), Burke’s Garden (2007), Jewell Ridge (2008), and Bluefield (2009). Hidden Histories of Tazewell County (2010) was edited by Dr. Mullins. He also discussed the experience of writing a church history for Pisgah UMC in 1993, and being recently commissioned to write histories of two smaller Southwest Virginia communities. MHA owes thanks to Terry for his children’s book Melungeons Out of the Dungeon and for all his work bringing the Melungeon story to Appalachian community history.
The photo of Wayne Winkler in the current Coalfield Progress is testimony to his courage in being the only speaker to give his presentation outdoors under a tent, as advertised. Although he spoke in fiery heat, the morning after an incredibly stormy night across the region, there were no “firestorms” of controversy. Most of his talk was devoted to explaining how Melungeons have been misunderstood and mythologized in traditionally-cited primary sources. But in the final third, he delved into the recent publicity about Melungeon DNA, which he had discussed in a radio interview just before coming to 16th Union. Phyllis Starnes had prepared the conferees on Friday afternoon to distinguish between three aspects of recent discussions of Melungeon DNA. The lab results, and the study itself, are matters of objective fact that is indisputable; the interpretation in this or any report is necessarily tinged with subjective bias; the soundbites conveyed by the media confuse and distort both the study and the report.
Wayne followed up on the DNA issue by explaining that the negative spin of the recent AP story and especially the headlines were not intended by the report authors. Yet the headlines were undeniably negative– in that our Native American and Mediterranean ancestry were allegedly disproven and relegated to the status of racist mythology—more than positive about what was proven. After all, the study authors selected “a multi-ethnic population” as a subtitle, and not “mulatto wannabe Indians” which nonetheless has been the stereotypical insult applied to Melungeons in the wake of the AP story. Conferees were left feeling that the air had been cleared of some misunderstandings and hard feelings. What the study does prove beyond dispute is the subsaharan African Y DNA lineage of many families of the Newman’s Ridge Melungeon community. But by its very nature, such a study cannot disprove the triracial status of Melungeons in general—which has been unanimously attested by generations of social scientists as well as testimony of Melungeons themselves. Mediterranean ancestry was repeatedly claimed by 19th century Melungeons in addition to Native American, English, and African ancestry, and not as a cover story to deny the triracial foundations of their communities. In his closing remarks, Wayne stated clearly that nothing in any DNA evidence conflicts with the triracial-and-beyond understanding of Melungeons presented in Dr. Smallwood’s keynote address the night before.
Since 1998, the Melungeon Heritage Association has been claiming and celebrating the full multi-ethnicity of our extended kinship network. We thank Wayne Winkler for his presentation at 16th Union, handling a situation rife with confusion and controversy in a way that brought greater understanding of all the nuances and complexities involved.
Lisa Alther’s presentation combined two books published in the past year, both set in southern Appalachia and depicting communities on the margins of so-called civilization. Washed in the Blood, Alther’s eighth novel but the first on Melungeons, was published by Mercer University Press in late 2011. It was the topic of a preview at 15th Union in Swannanoa last summer, but now that the book is available Lisa graciously agreed to devote half her presentation to it at 16th Union, before discussing her hugely successful new non-fiction study of the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
Couchtown, Virginia, the fictional setting of most of Washed in the Blood, is located some distance east of Big Stone Gap, but its story will be recognizable to MHA readers even though the word Melungeon never appears. (Alther explained that the characters would not have used the word so it had no place in the novel.) The Tug Fork Valley, some distance north of Big Stone Gap, is the historical setting for Blood Feud, and once again Alther painstaking and lovingly recreates an Appalachian community of the past that has been shrouded in myth and mystery.
Readers are indebted to Lisa for her sensitive, humorous, compassionate rendering of Melungeon history, both in her novel and her earlier non-fiction book Kinfolks. (2007) MHA congratulates her on the immediate bestseller status of Blood Feud, testimony to her skill in bringing narrative techniques from fiction to make history come to life.
Sharon Ewing, museum director and park manager, opened our final Saturday afternoon session with a narrated presentation of slides depicting the history of Big Stone Gap. Her 2008 Arcadia book Big Stone Gap from the series Images of America: Virginia was the source of photos, and Sharon’s humorous account of various figures in the town’s history gave the conferees a better feel for the community which was so welcoming to us.
MHA’s gratitude to Sharon extends beyond her lively presentation. Since January, she and chief ranger Aaron Davis have provided great assistance to our planning process for 16th Union. During the event, they were constantly supportive and available to us, assisted by seven young (high school student) volunteers from the Youth Conservation Corps, the museum staff, and Ariel, another volunteer with several years of experience with the Museum, now a college student. They helped us with book sales, equipment setup, all the errands that arise at the last minute, and all cheerfully despite the extreme conditions outdoors. Aaron Davis deserves a special word of thanks for his early warning of the Derecho that was heading towards southwest Virginia, giving us plenty of time to reach our motel rooms to watch TV coverage of the massive storm that barely missed Wise County but devastated some of our hometowns across West Virginia and Virginia.
The hospitality of the museum and the town, and the satisfaction of MHA conferees with the setting, were such that we were left wondering, not whether to return for a future Union—but when, and how regularly thereafter. A member survey was taken at 16th Union which will help the board plan 17th and 18th Union venues and dates well in advance.
One unplanned quality of 16th Union was the escalating laughter from conferees as speakers brought out the humorous angles on their subject matter. Dr. Kathy Lyday-Lee took on a very serious topic, the stereotyping of Melungeons and Appalachian people in literature, with a light touch that suggested that the proper way to respond to such stereotypes is to laugh at them. (But also to understand them.) Lisa Alther had mentioned the subject of Appalachian stereotypes arising from the Hatfield/McCoy feud. As a scholar of Appalachian literature, Kathy carried this thread forward with a look at literary depictions of Melungeons, from Will Allen Dromgoole through Mildred Haun and Jesse Stuart to contemporary authors. Sometimes stereotypical traits are put to good use in novels, for example the six-fingered Melungeons of Alther’s work. But more often the mysterious, tragic, half-wild portrayal of Melungeons has conveyed negative messages. The surprise ending of Kathy’s presentation was her description of a new novel by Alex Bledsoe, The Hum and the Shiver, set in Needsville, home of the mysterious dark Tufa people who are able to fly when conditions are just right—the “hum.” Detail after detail made it clear that Melungeons and Hancock County were the model for this fantasy novel, announced as first of a series. We were left eagerly awaiting her forthcoming review of this fantasy retelling of the Melungeon story, after hearing her discuss its use of stereotypes. MHA thanks Dr. Lyday-Lee for bringing her expertise in literary history to the topic of Melungeon myth vs. reality, and for handling a sensitive issue in a way that engulfed the room in laughter again and again.
The finale of 16th Union brought us full circle from our last celebration in Big Stone Gap in 2007. The big news that year at 11th Union was the debut of Melungeon Voices, Julie Williams Dixon’s documentary film which was seven years in the making. Julie returned to her native county, which largely inspired the quest behind Melungeon Voices, after five years in which the film has won several awards, been shown to audiences throughout the eastern and southern US, and been a huge hit at National Genealogical Society conferences in Raleigh (2009) and Charleston (2011.) This year Julie returned to Big Stone Gap and opened her presentation with a selection of outtakes from Melungeon Voices, raw footage of interviews from ten years ago that included three Melungeons attending 16th Union: Claude Collins, Johnnie Rhea, and Wayne Winkler. Interviews with them and others brought out colorful details of Appalachian community life in the days before modern conveniences. Conferees were delighted with this look behind the scenes of a documentary that has been warmly embraced by the Melungeon community.
16th Union closed with a showing of a new documentary for which Julie was the co-writer, Birth of a Colony: North Carolina. The film, which debuted in October 2011 on North Carolina Public TV, depicts the impact on Native Americans of successive waves of European settlers and armies who arrived in what is now North Carolina from first contact through the Tuscarora Wars. Julie was responsible for the interviews with scholarly experts on the period, all of whom were excellent, and none more eloquent on the Indians of the Carolina coast than 16th Union keynote speaker Dr. Arwin Smallwood. The term “pre-Melungeon” occurred to me after viewing Birth of a Colony and reading Washed in the Blood. Both works provide essential background knowledge of the historical conditions in which the blending of European, African, and Indian cultures and DNA occurred that led to all the “triracial isolates” including Melungeons.
MHA thanks Julie for once again bringing her passion for historical research and her love of filmmaking to Melungeon viewers, who are perhaps uniquely qualified to appreciate the labor of love in Melungeon Voices and the historical depth and breadth ofBirth of a Colony.
The 17th Melungeon Union was the best attended in six years, with more than fifty MHA members on the first day and more than seventy in attendance on Saturday to see the new documentary. The Wytheville Meeting Center was a commodious and welcoming venue for both the smaller conference on Friday and the film showing the next day.
Friday morning opened with Dr. Terry Mullins of Concord University presenting “Cultural Diversity Comes Home,” an introduction to Melungeons that he has been invited to give to several scholarly and general audiences. This was followed first by a panel consisting of MHA Vice President Scott Withrow, Elon University professor Kathy Lyday, and MHA Treasurer Phyllis Morefield. A new fantasy novel series by Alex Bledsoe provided the springboard for a discussion by Kathy and Scott of how Melungeons are perceived and misrepresented in popular culture, followed by remarks by Phyllis on finding Melungeon ancestry through genealogical research. The next panel consisted of Stacy Webb, Jeanne Bornefield, and me (KPJ), discussing “Melungeon Geography.” I opened with a presentation on the current distribution of Melungeons in the United States, compared to that of the Goins family. I announced plans for a 2015 collection from Backintyme Publications entitled The Goinses, tracing this family from the Carolina/Virginia coast through Appalachia into the Deep South and Midwest, to be co-edited by Stacy Webb and me. Stacy followed with a discussion of historic migration patterns of triracial peoples and the legal pressures that compelled their mobility in the 19th century. Jeanne concluded by introducing a new initiative to compile county-level genealogical contact information for mixed ancestry researchers, and discussed her Indiana research.
Following lunch, we had a lengthy informal period for chats on family and local history and then heard Beth Hirschman deliver what amounted to a keynote address on “Becoming Melungeon.” She proposed a model for the process based on the “stages of acceptance” associated with grief. First, we deny mixed ancestry in our own family lines; then accept it reluctantly and resentfully; and finally progress toward willing acceptance, embracing and celebrating our full heritage. Beth gave a humorous account of coming to terms with the fact that her forebears included no royalty or people of great wealth, but did include a great many despised ethnic minorities. The Friday session closed with the MHA annual meeting, followed by a period honoring Johnnie Gibson Rhea, who recently was featured in a public radio documentary about Melungeon DNA, some of which had been recorded at 16th Union.
The Saturday morning session opened with an address by MHA President S.J. Arthur on issues of identity for 21st century Melungeons and Melungeon descendants. SJ discussed different standards applied to self-identification as Melungeon contrasted with other ethnic groups, and the historical factors that prevented such self-identity until the emergence of the modern Melungeon movement. Manuel Mira followed with a discussion of his Portuguese heritage and long-term interest in Melungeon research. Wayne Winkler concluded the Saturday morning session with a masterful multimedia examination of 19thcentury primary sources on Melungeons and their many biases and distortions.
The climax and conclusion of the Union was a showing of The Melungeons of Vardy Valley. A panel composed of interviewees Claude Collins, DruAnna Williams Overbay, and Troy Williams was moderated by filmmaker Ian Cheney and complemented by co-producers Marilyn Cheney and Todd Beckham. The beautiful and moving documentary stimulated many questions and favorable comments from conferees. At the close of the Union, Claude Collins invited everyone to join MHA and the Vardy Community Historical Society for 18th Union, to be celebrated in Vardy, TN and Big Stone Gap, VA.
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.
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.
Mr. Douglas spoke about his Creole research at 19th Union.
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.