Coalfield Progress report on Terry Mullins at 16th Union

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Author offers mountain research, writing tips (Katie Dunn, Staff Writer, Coalfield Progress)

BIG STONE GAP — The southern Appalachians are a region rich in culture and history, attributes that author and educator Terry Mullins said make researching and writing about them an “illuminating” experience.

Mullins, a native of Tazewell and associate professor of education at Concord University in Athens, W.Va., has authored several books, many about places in Southwest Virginia.

He was one of several speakers featured last weekend at the Melungeon Heritage Association’s 16th union, which was held at the Southwest Virginia History Museum and State Park in Big Stone Gap. In past years, Mullins has presented an overview of the Melungeon people, but this year decided to focus on what resources to use when researching and writing about the mountains for historical and genealogical purposes.

“Researching and writing in the mountains is exhilarating,” he told the audience. “It’s exciting and, to me, it’s challenging, and I hope you will try to do some of it yourself, if you haven’t already.”

Below are some of the tips Mullins gave:

• When recording stories, no matter the subject, make sure you’re inspired to write about that subject and be sure you can find information about it.

• Write about what you know. Mullins’ first book, Pisgah United Methodist Church, Two Centuries of Faith was about his hometown church in Tazewell, which celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1993.

• When researching the history of a church or organization, inquire about its records. Depending on the denomination, district and conference reports might be available, as well as denominational compilations (membership numbers and other information that offers a feel for that church’s history). Mullins mentioned the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church archives at Emory and Henry College, which offer quite a bit of information about Methodist churches in Southwest Virginia and Eastern Tennessee.

• When researching his book, Bishop, Virginia-West Virginia, a Coalfield Community and Its School, Mullins took advantage of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives, a special collection of resources related to the coal industry housed in the Craft Memorial Library in Bluefield, W.Va.

• Businesses and corporations, as well as ethnic and other special interest groups, such as the Melungeon Heritage Association, might have resources not readily available elsewhere.

• Local historical societies harbor invaluable information.

• County courthouses in Virginia keep marriage, divorce, probate and civil court records from the beginning of the county, as well as birth and death records.

• Newspaper archives can reveal what was happening in a community at a particular time.

• Public and college libraries often have state and region-specific sections. Public libraries might have obituary indices, local and family history files, census records and vertical files. Several nearby colleges that have Virginia or Appalachian collections or Appalachian Studies programs include Appalachian State University, Virginia Tech, Radford University, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, the University of Kentucky, Marshall University and East Tennessee State University.

• Photo archives can be helpful, such as the Library of Virginia and Virginia Tech’s digital library and archives.

• The internet harbors digitized photo archives, historical records, as well as online access libraries, digital projects and genealogy databases.

• Museums have written records, photos/images, thematic files, gallery collections, dioramas and artifacts, all of which might not be on display.

• Oral histories, eyewitness accounts, audio- and video-taped interviews can help uncover information that might otherwise be unknown.

© 2012 (with thanks from MHA for permission to archive this article from July 6, 2012 online)

Melungeon Voices

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“Melungeon Voices”
A film by Julie Williams Dixon and Warren Gentry.
The film tells the complex story of the Melungeons using interviews, family photographs, archival documents and old film footage from the Vardy school. Several MHA presenters are featured in the documentary including Brent Kennedy, Jack Goins, Wayne Winkler, and Darlene Wilson (Web Spinning Granny). Many Melungeons from the Vardy and Sneedville area are also highlighted including DruAnna Williams Overbay, Claude Collins, Scott Collins, Seven Gibson and Johnnie Rhea.
The film is beautifully shot with haunting time lapse scenes from atop Newman’s Ridge and wandering scenes from Stone Mountain, and other locations throughout our region. Seven years in the making it is as interesting to those who’ve been studying Melungeon history for years as it is to newcomers.
The film was shown at the 2007 gathering and received sustained applause after both showings. The film has been slightly modified since last summer, and Julie Williams Dixon continued to edit and improve the film and showed it again at 12th Union to a rapt audience. “My goal is to make the film have the widest appeal possible whether you’re a Melungeon or not. This story transcends just the Melungeons,” she has stated.
A preview of the film can be found at
The film is also available for purchase at the site.

Coalfield Progress story about DNA report at 16th Union

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DNA study a hot topic at gathering (Katie Dunn, Staff Writer, the Coalfield Progress)

BIG STONE GAP — While a controversial study published earlier this year offers hints as to the ancestral origins of the Melungeons, some of the group’s membership maintains that much of the mystery surrounding their heritage still remains.

The study was among the topics discussed at the Melungeon Heritage Association’s 16th union, “Home to the Hills: Melungeon Heritage and Appalachian Communities,” held last weekend at the Southwest Virginia History Museum and State Park in Big Stone Gap.

The event featured 11 speakers, including Wayne Winkler, past president of the association, who spoke in part about the controversy surrounding the study, “Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population,” which was published in April in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy.


Historically, “Melungeon” was a derogatory term used to describe several families of unknown ancestry who lived primarily in Hawkins and Hancock counties of Tennessee and in southern Lee County.

The mystery surrounding the Melungeons has long been debated. Some theories purport that the Melungeons were part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony, the Ottoman Turks, Native Americans, Portuguese, escaped slaves, Juan Pardo’s or Hernando de Soto’s expeditions, and the list goes on. Meanwhile, Melungeon families have claimed to be Native American, Portuguese and white.

The study attempted to gain more insight into the group’s ancestral origins through DNA testing. Those tested were selected from a small group of descendants whose surnames are most commonly associated with Melungeon ancestry. In order for a surname to be included in the study, at least one historical record from the 1800s and early 1900s — such as census, court and voting records or tax lists — related to Hawkins and Hancock counties or adjacent areas had to exist that stated the family was considered to be Melungeon.

The study’s authors note that a participant also had to be a paternal descendent “from an individual within this core group of surnames from the relevant counties, or their direct ancestors.”

The paternal DNA tests revealed that subjects were of both European and African origin. The female, or mitochondrial DNA, lines tested yielded only European ancestry, however.

Winkler, whose Melungeon connection is through his father’s family, said the study shows that at least some Melungeon families have African ancestors. A lot of people, including the association, have always accepted this, he said, but until now have had no verification.


Winkler was not a subject of the study nor did he help with the project, but he was interested in the research.

“One of the things that was pointed out by this study is that it was a very narrow focus, very narrow in terms of who was eligible for the study, and that was intentional,” he said. “No one was ever trying to restrict the definition of Melungeons to this small group.” Instead, he reasoned that the authors were looking to establish a baseline to help better define who Melungeons are and what can be genetically said about their ancestry.

An article written by the Associated Press concerning the study has generated some controversy regarding these findings, and Winkler also addressed this.

While he called the article accurate, he said there is a difference between being accurate and true. The article missed a lot of important background information, he said, and did not mention several nuances noted in the 108-page study. It also seemed to definitively state that Melungeons did not have Native American ancestry, which Winkler said the study does not express.

Julie Williams Dixon, a filmmaker who was also a presenter at the conference, said she gave Jack Goins and the study’s other authors a lot of credit, but wished they had been “more savvy in controlling the AP article.” Dixon, a Wise County native, filmed the documentary, Melungeon Voices.

“You can’t understate the damage that that article did,” she said. “I personally believe that they should have come forward after that article and written a counterstatement because the AP article was extremely poor reporting, so all their good work is not going to get its due unless they come forward.”


Winkler noted that some people have also criticized the methodology used in the study, but said this is how academia works. If someone finds an issue with how the study was written, he encouraged them to write their own paper and submit it to the same peer review.

One person in a blog post even suggested the study was false and that it was a war on “Indian heritage” and “sheer genocidal activity” against Native American groups of Appalachia.

“Genocide is a pretty strong term to use for a dispute about an academic paper,” said Winkler. “There are people who have been touched by genocide, who have lost families to genocide. Using that term is inappropriate.” He also mentioned that Goins has researched Melungeons for three decades, and he finds it difficult to believe that Goins would invest all his time and effort into publishing a false study.

Despite the debate surrounding the study, Winkler said he believes it is a milestone in Melungeon research and provides a foundation for future inquiries. It’s also important that these studies be done now, since individuals considered to be Melungeons are disappearing as an identifiable group. He said trying to find those who had an unbroken male line dating back to 1830 was difficult.

At the close of Winkler’s presentation, one audience member asked him what he thought this and other DNA studies have contributed to living a Melungeon experience.

Winkler paused and then responded that he didn’t know that this knowledge would have made any difference in the way his grandmother or great-grandparents lived. “Those of us who have had our DNA tested, we don’t live on Newman’s Ridge without a telephone and television and indoor plumbing, which is a big part of the historic Melungeon experience, a big part of the historic Appalachian experience,” he said. “For people today, it’s just our wanting to know more about our ancestry. We’re kind of living that Melungeon life a little vicariously through what we learned about our ancestors.

“DNA helps us to visualize who they might have been, where some of these ancestors might have come from, but I don’t think it really makes much difference in how we see ourselves.”

reposted from the July 6, 2012 edition with permission from:
© 2012

Coalfield Progress Story about Lisa Alther at 16th Union

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Novel focuses on region’s multi-ethnic heritage (Katie Dunn, Staff Writer, the Coalfield Progress)

BIG STONE GAP — America is often described as a melting pot, a nation where different ethnicities and cultures have assimilated into a cohesive union.

In her recently published novel, Washed in the Blood, author Lisa Alther, a Kingsport, Tenn. native, focuses on this notion by exploring the early history of the southern Appalachians and chronicling the story of several generations of a multi-ethnic family who lived in the region.

The book begins with the arrival of Diego Martin, a hog drover who came to the region with a Spanish exploring party in the 16th century. Martin is abandoned by the expedition’s leader in the wilderness, but is rescued by “friendly natives.” Alther’s book chronicles Martin’s descendants through the early 20th century as they struggle to survive and gain acceptance in a racially charged era.

Alther discussed this and another of her recently published books during the Melungeon Heritage Association’s gathering last weekend.

She told those gathered that she had researched the novel for 10 years, beginning in 1996; the book was published last fall.

The novel focuses on the racial mixing that occurred in the region, though Alther said she abstained from using the term “Melungeon,” noting that through her research she has concluded that there is no such thing as the “Melungeon Story.” Each family whose ancestors made their way inland from the coast to the mountains has stories of the different ethnicities that were absorbed along the way, she said.

“As a result, if we considered the people on Newman’s Ridge with the standard Melungeon names as the Melungeons, it seems to me that they’re just the tip of the iceberg, that there are Melungeon-like groups all over the eastern third of the United States,” she said.

A description of the novel on Alther’s website notes that the Southeast “was not a barren wilderness when the English arrived at Jamestown. It was full of Native Americans, other Europeans, and Africans who were there for various reasons.”

“As the explorers and soldiers and settlers and their servants of varying ethnicities . . . arrived at the coast and as they worked their way inward, they collided with the native tribes and they mixed and mingled, as people always do, and the result was, as the years went by, some racially ambiguous people,” Alther explained. She ventured that those who appeared to be Native American or African or white joined their respective communities, but those whose ancestral origins were uncertain or those who did not want to leave family or friends created their own communities in locations considered undesirable by Europeans — swamplands or ridgetops. Here, they kept to themselves and were largely excluded and stigmatized by the surrounding communities. She said it was assumed these individuals had African ancestry, no matter what their real ancestry might have been.

These communities existed into the 20th century, she explained, with about 200 of these ethnically ambiguous groups located in the northeastern and southeastern U.S.

Through the characters in her book, Alther explores how these different ethnic groups could have blended, as well as what happened to them at a time when discriminatory laws regarding race were being implemented.

Alther has published six novels, including Washed in the Blood. Most recently, she published the narrative history, Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance. She also has a collection of short stories, Stormy Weather and Other Stories, that will be published in September.

MHA thanks the Coalfield Progress for permission to reproduce this article from the July 6, 2012 edition.

Coalfield Progress story about 16th Union

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Researcher: Melungeons don’t deny ancestry (Glenn Gannaway, Staff Writer, the Coalfield Progress)

The notion that Melungeons are in denial about their ancestry misrepresents the history of these mixed-race peoples, says a researcher.

A study published last April in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy — and mass media reports of the study — were “horribly unfair,” said Paul Johnson, corresponding secretary and vice president of the Melungeon Heritage Association, which held its 16th union last weekend at Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park.

The DNA study was limited to people whose families were called Melungeon in the historical records of the 1800s and early 1900s in two northeast Tennessee counties, Hawkins and Hancock, on the Virginia border.

The word “Melungeon” was used as a slur to describe a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border as long ago as the early 1800s, but the term has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mixed-race ancestry, according to reports of the genetics study.

The study concluded that Melungeon families are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and women of northern or central European origin.

Press reports have claimed that the study’s results upset people who claim Melungeon ancestry and say they can trace their lineage to more “exotic” sources, such as Turkish slaves or Gypsies.

One press report quoted the study’s lead researcher, Roberta Estes, as saying, “there were a whole lot of people upset by this study. They just knew they were Portuguese, or Native American.”

The implication of the report was that, a century and more ago, Melungeons hid their African-American ancestry and that modern-day Melungeons in turn romanticized their origins. The study said that, in the 1800s, Melungeons denied their African-American heritage in order to retain a white identity at a time when laws penalized individuals with African-American blood.

“I find myself disagreeing with the narrative put out there” by reports of the genetics study, Johnson said. “Not to say that that’s not a factor. But that people told lies to cover up the truth is horribly unfair, because what they did was tell stories to cover up their ignorance.”

“You have generations of illiteracy, and even if they’re literate in terms of some reading and writing, what’s their historical literacy?” Johnson said of earlier generations of Melungeons. “They probably didn’t even know what an African was, but the knew what an Indian was. So they reached for an easy explanation.”

Johnson, himself the author of several books, including one related to mixed ancestry, said Melungeons themselves had already affirmed their African-American ancestry.

Johnson’s research into his own ancestry produced the book Pell Mellers: Race and Memory in a Carolina Pocosin.

In the core Melungeon area of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, “the general response was, there’s really nothing new here,” Johnson said of reaction to the study. “The affirmation of African-American ancestry was made by Melungeons to outsiders as far back as the 1890s and in 1848.”

Those Melungeons, Johnson said, listed Native American, English, African and Portuguese lines in their ancestry, a result of the “waves of people arriving on these ridges,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing about the data that upsets anybody. The report, and especially the AP (Associated Press) story portrayed Melungeons as in denial about their ancestry. The idea was that these were people who could not face the truth about their ancestry. … Nobody has a problem with the truth of the data, only the interpretation.”

Racial mixing has been common since the colonial period, and Melungeon heritage has more to do with culture than with DNA. As sociologist G. Reginald Daniel, who has spent more than 30 years examining mulit-racial peoples, was quoted as saying, “all of us are multi-racial.”

The term “tri-racial isolate,” used to describe populations with Native American, African-American and white European ancestry, is “not a description of an individual’s DNA; it’s a description of a community,” Johnson said. “In isolated locations, people white, black and Indian were able to intermarry. By living that way, they became outlaws or outcasts who were not living according to the rules of the society around them. It doesn’t mean Melungeons were necessarily discriminated against, but because they were living up on a ridge” they were isolated and held ideas that were outside the mainstream, Johnson said.

Or, as Arwin Smallwood put it, referring to two Native American tribes of the Southeast, “it’s not genetics or blood that makes you Tuscarora or Iroquois, it’s the culture. So you had Africans, Native Americans and whites who were brought into the nation that way.”

Smallwood, who holds a doctorate in American history, studies the intersections between Caucasian, African-American and Native American peoples in the colonial period.

“When the Tuscarora and other native peoples adopted people — all kinds of people — in that adoption process, the genetics aren’t going to change. The white women, for example, are considered Indian, but their genetics won’t change,” Smallwood said.

Racial mixing in the New World dates to the 1500s, said Julie Williams Dixon, who is originally from Wise and who filmed “Melungeon Voices.”

Or, as Smallwood explained, intermarriage was common as the native peoples migrated from east to west ahead of the European settlers. “Pocahontas was not unusual; that was the norm,” Smallwood said. “A lot of single men came and took native wives.” Ties with the native peoples allowed European men to establish themselves in such enterprises as fur trading.

Media reports of the recently published genetics study “boiled a complex, beautifully nuanced story into a conflict,” Dixon said. “The story is hard to report on or summarize, and that’s what this group (the Melungeon Heritage Association) is trying to do. What’s the context in which the Melungeon story even unfolded?”

The mountainous frontier was a “magnet” for people attracted to freedoms that weren’t available in more settled areas, Johnson said, drawing individuals to the “free and easy life” of the Native Americans. “The first generations of Melungeons supposedly lived like Indians, regardless of their genetics. They might have been purely European or African, but when they arrived, their way of life was Indian.”

Or, as Johnson summarized with one striking image, people in Melungeon communities twisted their tobacco the way Native Americans did, not the way Europeans did.

MHA thanks the Coalfield Progress for permission to archive this article from the July 6, 2012 edition.

2011 Charleston National Genealogical Society report

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MHA at National Genealogical Society 2011

Charleston, SC

MHA’s four day presence at NGS was the perfect antidote to any perception we might have had that our interests are a small niche, relevant only to a tiny percentage of Americans.   Julie Williams Dixon’s showing of Melungeon Voices on the first night of the conference drew a sizeable audience, as did Terry Mullins’s lecture presentation on Melungeons, “Cultural Diversity Comes Home.”  But the combined 150 or so attendance at these programs was dwarfed by the number of people who visited the MHA booth in the exhibit hall.   Most of the hundred and twenty booths were hosted by vendors of books and online databases, or local and state genealogical societies.  The MHA booth was consistently once of the most visited, and often was swarmed by visitors between the sessions for genealogists.  Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that we had three authors and one filmmaker at the booth.  Terry Mullins, Frank Sweet, Julie Williams Dixon, and I all spent hours responding to inquiries, as did S.J. Arthur, Elizabeth Williams, and Mary Lee Sweet.   But all this activity was from the 1600 registered conferees who had paid to attend the event.  On the final day, more than 600 more people arrived for free genealogy classes offered by, and they greatly increased the traffic in the exhibit hall.   The influx of new people kept all of us busy answering nonstop questions; the most frequent being simply “What is a Melungeon?”  Each of us heard story after story about mixed ancestry backgrounds, or family secrets and mysteries that hinted at such.  We left feeling that the interest shown in the past for MHA’s work is only the tip of the iceberg and many thousands of Americans continue to discover that their own ancestry is more complicated than they had suspected.
One of the questions asked at the showing of Melungeon Voices was about the connection of the Melungeon story to the new book by Daniel Sharfstein, The Invisible Line.  This provided an opening for MHA to announce the author’s participation as a featured speaker at 15th Union.

11th Union Report

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Before 1607? Melungeons in the New World”

Southwest Virginia Museum, Bigs Stone Gap, 29-30 June 2007

The Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA) and the Southwest Virginia Museum sponsored Before 1607? Melungeons in the New World in conjunction with Virginia’s statewide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.

Southwest Virginia Museum

A reception on Friday evening, June 29th, featured music by Ron Short. Short, a native of the Appalachian Mountains of Dickenson County, Virginia, has worked at Roadside Theater for the past 26 years as a playwright, musician, composer, actor, and director. He scripted and wrote music for 15 musical plays and helped script three others, all currently in Roadside’s touring repertoire. He performs in all of the company’s touring productions.

Speakers on Saturday, June 30, inclulded:
Lisa Alther, best-selling novelist and author of the new memoir Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree; The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors
Jack Goins
Wayne Winkler, author of Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia
Katherine Vande Brake, author of How They Shine: Melungeon Characters in the Fiction of Appalachia
Terry Mullins, researcher, author, and lecturer
Toney Kirk, researcher and MHA board member

Storyteller Linda Goodman
Jim Glanville, respearcher of early Spanish and a Portuguese explorations in southwest Virginia
Turker Ozdogan, artist and Turkish historian
Mattie Ruth Johsnon, author of My Melungeon Heritage

…and more.

The Southwest Virginia Museum was an excellent location; The grounds are beautiful, and the perfect weather didn’t hurt either. Organizers expected 200 or so and wound up with close to 400 –not counting guests, presenters, MHA staff, etc. Naturally., MHA organizers were quite pleased.

There were many highlights to the event, but of course Julie Dixon’s documentary Melungeon Voices was certainly a long-awaited pleasure. She’s put in a lot of time and effort and it shows. She set out to tell Brent Kennedy;s story, of course, but Brent also wanted a balance of viewpoints in this film and Julie achieved that admirably. The running time clocked in at 1 hour 6 minutes, but Julie assures me that if someone like PBS, History Channel, or Discovery Channel picked it up, it could be tightened to fit their time requirements without significant loss of content. I hope it can be seen by a much larger audience in the very near future.

We had a nice room for viewing the film – good sight lines, good audio, not too much ambient light – but it could only seat 50 people. We had a sneak preview Friday evening and another showing on Saturday afternoon, but it was obvious that our planned third showing – and even our stand-by plan of a fourth showing – wouldn’t satisfy the demand for the film. Plus the original room was difficult for Brent to get into. So Julie and her cinematographer Warren Gentry made a last minute move of the entire set-up into the tent, and MHA decided to forgo a discussion session so that we could all see the film before it got too late. It was a good move; Brent was able to see the movie front and center, and everyone who stayed had the opportunity to see it.

Brent’s presence was, of course, very touching for all of us. It was 10 years ago next month that the first Melungeon gathering took place in Wise, Virginia. Few would argue with the idea that he has done more than any individual to stimulate interest in the Melungeons. While Brent’s voice is (for now) stilled and his body is damaged, he is still completely Brent Kennedy, and we certainly have not heard the last of him. His presence in Big Stone Gap was an inspiration to us all, as has been his work for the past decade or more.

The Bluestar Dance Troupe

Bluestar Dance Troupe was founded by Zeki Maviyildiz, who has been sharing his vast experience and talents with his friends. Despite being a new dance group, Bluestar Dance Troupe has introduced Turkish Folk Dances to many audiences. They present a variety of Turkish folk dance pieces from traditional dances to modern choreographies keeping the spirit of the dance. They will be performing Saturday afternoon at 2:15 at the event, and again Saturday evening at Mosby’s in nearby Wise, along with music from the Kennedy Brothers.

The Bluestar Dance Troupe was amazing. They perform a combination of traditional and modern Turkish dance and the result is quite breathtaking. For those of us at Mosby’s on Saturday night, we got an even more entertaining show with not only the addition of the music of the Kennedy Brothers but some quite entertaining audience participation.

We distributed surveys to attendees about what they would like to see in future gatherings. We really want input from those who attend, and those who might attend if we offered more of what they want. Feel free to send suggestions to me Keep in mind that we’re a volunteer organization with a very small budget—if you think we need we need a team of genealogists or other sort of experts on hand for workshops, be prepared to be one of them, OK?

Thanks again to all who attended. Those of you who have presentations in electronic form, just send them to me if you’d like us to add them to the website. And PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE send pictures! Best wishes to all, and we’ll have another great get-together next year!

Wayne Winkler
Melungeon Heritage Association

12th Union Report

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Twelfth Union: A Melungeon Gathering

It might appear to many of you watching this site that we went on vacation after our gathering at LincolnMemorial University.  In some ways we did!  We are all dedicated volunteers and put off many things in our own lives until after our gatherings.  So, we had to play catch up in our lives, families and communities.
We have also been at work completing the many post event chores required each year as well as starting to plan 13th Union.  Still, we need to let those who attended, presented or assisted in any way, as well as those unable to attend this year, know how much MHA appreciates your dedication.  MHA acknowledges all the talented and supportive people who work to make the events happen; you help us and others piece together the myriad of stories and families who are part of this tapestry.
Lincoln Memorial University staff worked from before our arrival until our departure to ensure that those attending the gathering had their needs met.   Presenters included authors Lisa Alther, Elizabeth Hirschman, K. Paul Johnson, Frank Sweet and LMU’s own, Larry Thacker.
Musical entertainment, both formal and informal, was provided by guitarist, Randy Williams & friends; Frank & Mary Lee Sweet of Backintyme Performances, and Jeanne Bornefeld.
Historians Earl Hess and Ron Bryant contributed greatly to our event by providing the historical prospective to a variety of subjects.   Film maker, Julie Williams Dixon, showed her highly acclaimed film,Melungeon Voices, to a packed audience and had her film available for sale for the first time.  To get your own copy, contact Julie at her site.
Researchers (and MHA Board members) Terry Mullins and Toney Kirk also presented programs regarding Melungeon heritage.  We were also well informed on North Carolina connections by researcher,Todd Beckham.  He and author, K. Paul Johnson, discovered family and community connections through each others presentations. Similar connections were made during informal chat groups where participants could discuss regional and familial connections. Our own Lifetime Achievement recipient, Johnnie Rhea, again delighted her audience with stories of her Melungeon experience.  Panel discussions participants,Marilyn Cheney, Helen Campbell, as well as others, addressed issues common to us all in celebrating identity.
Vardy Community Historical Society displayed their exquisite photographic collection and gave a presentation on the Vardy Community. Stacy Webb and Gabe Gabeheart from the Redbone Heritage Foundation each educated us with regard to their group as well as the similar connections and questions that exist for many mixed ancestry groups.   Jim Gifford of the Jesse Stuart Foundation also talked about Jesse Stuart as an individual, a writer and the story behind Deutsia of Daughter of the Legend (the real Barney Green). Jesse Stuart Foundation volunteers even helped at the sales table for two days giving us the opportunity to learn about their mission.  Sue Collins again, in her quietly effective manner, provided amusement and old fashioned education to the young ones through games of days gone by.  She is an example of the family of participants and volunteers who form A Melungeon Gathering.
Brent Kennedy’s presence during a portion of the weekend reminded many of us of the inspiration he has always provided to get beyond the factors that divide people, so as to concentrate on those that unite us.
At our yearly meeting, Lisa Alther about brought down the house with her succinct statement (to the delight of a surprised MHA Board) as she got to the heart of the matter of what MHA stands for.  She said that she had not joined any group since the Queen Teens of Kingsport until now.  She went on to say she had just joined MHA, at our first formal membership drive in years, because it was the first group where she didn’t have to hate anybody!
We concluded the yearly meeting with awards to a few more who so richly deserve recognition.  Founders Awards were given to Audie Kennedy, who was the first MHA president, and to Brent KennedyLifetime Achievement Awards were presented to Thelma Eanes, Wanda Loomis and Irene Wright. Two previous recipients, Claude Collins and Johnnie Rhea, joined in welcoming their new cohorts.
We concluded the gathering by … what else? … gathering informally outside our dorm rooms and singing the night away with the Sweets and Jeanne providing the music.   Even with traffic tie ups from extensive highway construction as well as medical emergencies resulting in a two cancelled speakers, we worked in concert to provide a quality program, in our tradition of sanctuary to a multitude of voices.
 Now, doesn’t all this make you want to sign up now for next year? MHA is having a planning session in early November for the 2009 gatheringWe have already set the dates of 26th and 27th of June at Chief Logan Lodge in Logan, WV so please mark your calendars.  Further details will be posted here and in our newsletter soon after the planning session.

14th Union Report

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The 14th Melungeon Union was extended to three days to allow for a full day celebrating the historic Melungeon community of Vardy.  The geographical scope of subjects also expanded, ranging from east Texas to northwest Ohio to northeastern North Carolina.  While the historic Melungeon heartland of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia remains home to MHA, we continue to include mixed ancestry peoples all across America in our Unions.  85 conferees attended the Union, coming from Tennessee and Virginia as well as Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas and the District of Columbia.

The Union opened formally on the morning of Thursday June 24 after an informal gathering in the previous evening. The event began with a welcome and introductions by SJ Arthur and the MHA Board of Directors.  The first scholarly presentation was by Dr. Terry Mullins of Concord University who gave a survey of what is known and speculated about the history and roots of the Melungeon people.  The morning session closed with a detailed explanation by Backintyme publisher Frank W. Sweet on “racial” classification in the US Census from 1790-2010.   The afternoon session opened with an international musical program with many traditional instruments by Jeanne Bornefeld.  Johnnie Gibson Rhea followed by sharing her family and community history of growing up on Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County.  Todd Beckham closed the afternoon with a detailed analysis of genealogical and DNA connections between Hancock County Melungeons and his 18th century Collins and Bunch ancestral families of Bertie County, North Carolina.  After dinner the conferees enjoyed a collection of outtakes from Julie Williams Dixon’s Melungeon Voices, featuring Melungeons from Hancock County, and a reception following hosted by Claude Collins, Rose Trent, and Johnnie Rhea.  A feeling of common purpose and shared exploration was nurtured in our activities the first day, and strengthened on the second day of the Union. Dr. Mullins’s introduction to Melungeons served as an ideal way to open the conference, and Frank Sweet’s survey of census “racial” classification was a masterpiece of thorough research delivered in an engaging and succinct manner.  The musical presentation by Jeanne Bornefeld was a tour de force, something entirely new for MHA and both entertaining and educational.  Johnnie Rhea is a beloved elder of the Melungeon community and no Union would be complete without a chance to share her memories of life in Hancock County.  Todd Beckham’s explanation of the relationship between the Bunch and Collins families of North Carolina and the Melungeons of Tennessee and Virginia brought together many threads that were of great interest to our diverse membership.  Thursday night’s showing of outtakes fromMelungeon Voices provided an ideal preparation for our day at Vardy.  The carefully selected excerpts of Hancock County Melungeon interviews showed how attitudes had evolved during the twentieth century as prejudice against Melungeons diminished and pride replaced shame.  Mattie Ruth Johnson, who did not appear in the final film, was especially eloquent in the interview we watched.

As soon as we completed breakfast Friday morning we were off on a one hour scenic mountain drive to the Vardy Church and Museum where graduates of Vardy Presbyterian School welcomed us with reminiscences of life at the school.  Claude Collins, DruAnna Williams Overbay, Troy Williams and Rose Trent had attended the school over a twenty-five year period and told stories about what it was like at different times during the mid-twentieth century.  After a break for box lunches provided by our hosts the Vardy Community Historical Society, author Katherine Vande Brake spoke about her work and issues in Melungeon history, to a very appreciative audience many of whom had read her recent book Through the Back Door.  Conferees then spent an hour exploring the site, with tours of the cabin of Mahala Mullins, the church and museum, and a walking tour of other nearby sites in Vardy Valley including the ruins of the school.  After returning to LMU for dinner, we ended the day with a keynote address on the Tuscarora diaspora by Professor Arwin D. Smallwood of the University of Memphis.  He expanded on his presentation from 13th Union and with abundant maps illustrated the Tuscarora presence throughout the eastern US. The day we spent in Vardy was perfect in every way; the weather was pleasantly cool after a heat wave, and VCHS had organized everything to make the day informative and pleasurable.  The panel of former students from the Vardy school was an ideal opening, as we were given the flavor of the school from the 1940s through the 1960s by different students.  Katie Vande Brake’s talk was thoughtful and inspiring, and afterwards we heard nothing but raves from conferees about Vardy and VCHS. The organization has done a splendid job of restoring and preserving community history, and no amount of thanks could be sufficient for all they did to make the day memorable.

The final day of the Union opened with four authors of Carolina Genesis: Beyond the Color Line in a symposium.  Cyndie Goins Hoelscher spoke about the Goins family in North Carolina and Texas; Scott Withrow traced the career of Rev. Joseph Willis who was born a North Carolina slave and died a White Texan; Marvin T. Jones described 250 year history of free people of color in Hertford County, NC; and I concluded with a description of the political forces leading to the 19thc extinction of Quakerism in a county founded by Quakers in the 17thc. Wayne Winkler ended the morning session with a fascinating report of ongoing research on the historical drama “Walk Toward the Sunset.”  Jameson Jones, who just graduated from Roanoke College and is entering the Appalachian Studies Master’s program at Appalachian State University, opened the Saturday afternoon session presenting results of a survey of Melungeon-identified individuals.  Dr. Jill Rowe of Virginia Commonwealth University concluded the scholarly presentations with a report of groundbreaking research on 19th century Melungeon communities in northwestern Ohio.  S.J. Arthur presided over the MHA Annual Meeting, with the topic Claiming Kin: Unions, Associations and Mixed Heritage.

Saturday was the day that new research was highlighted, and the first speaker Cyndie Goins Hoelscher was a Texan researching North Carolina Goins ancestors.  To our surprise and delight our final research presentation on Saturday was also by a member of this diverse family.  Only during her fascinating historical talk did we learn that Dr. Jill Rowe was part of the Goings family which figured prominently in her description of Melungeon communities in northwest Ohio. Scott Withrow’s presentation on Joseph Willis, like Cyndie’s on the Goinses, focused on mixed ancestry individuals and families who left North Carolina in the early 19th century.  Marvin Jones’s talk on the Winton Triangle celebrated a community that would not leave the county where they were landowners from the 1740s, regardless of all the pressures making mixed ancestry peoples feel unwelcome in the state.  It was a pleasure to meet Wayne Winkler, author of the most respected book about Melungeons, and to hear something of his forthcoming book; his enthusiasm for the subject matter was evident in his presentation and he left us looking forward to a future Union where he will be able to sign copies of the completed book.  Jameson Jones was a first time presenter to the Union, bringing a sociological perspective to Melungeon identity and providing a welcome youthful presence to the event.  As he begins studies for a Master’s in Appalachian Studies, MHA welcomes him as a new consultant to the board.  Also announced as new consultants were Marvin T. Jones, Arwin Smallwood, Scott Withrow, and Mary Lee Sweet whose videography has been a huge contribution to MHA for several years.  MHA strives to encourage fellowship and scholarship equally, celebrating the heritage of Melungeons and kindred groups while promoting study of their history.   14th Union struck a balance between celebration and scholarly research that I hope we can sustain in the future.   

The annual MHA meeting, chaired by president S.J. Arthur, provided discussion of future Unions, which the board will take into consideration as we begin plans for 2011. We are also encouraged by the verdict of Johnnie Gibson Rhea that 2010 was “the best event ever” hosted by MHA, and very grateful to all the members who helped to make it so.

13th Union Report

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13th MHA Union Nurtures Scholarship and Fellowship

A year ago I posted on my Backintyme blog that the Melungeon Heritage Association had hosted a successful and harmonious 12th Union, and that my presentations on Pell Mellers were well received.  Since then, I have become a consultant to the MHA board and was involved in the planning for the 13th Union, just completed in West Virginia.  We already have improvements in mind for 2010, but there seems to be a general consensus that 2009 was remarkably successful both in scholarly content and in creating an inclusive, welcoming atmosphere.  Some presentations provided abundant food for thought; others nurtured our feelings of solidarity among mixed-ancestry groups; most did both.  There are some areas where we need improvement, but for an all-volunteer group whose board only meets a few times per year, MHA put on an exemplary conference.  Conferees had gathered informally on Thursday evening at Chief Logan Conference Center in Logan, West Virginia, a venue that provided abundant meeting space and excellent accommodations.  New friendships were formed throughout the conference, and old friendships were renewed.   As conferees arrived they were welcomed with a concert by Logan County musician Roger Bryant, whose lyrics and music encapsulated the culture of the Mountain State.

After welcoming remarks from the Logan County Commissioners and Chamber of Commerce, the first presentation was by Adam Hodges, West Virginia Director of Museums.  He led us on a visual tour through the new West Virginia State Museum, which just opened to the public the week before the Union.  Its design incorporates many state-of-the-art museum features, and I was motivated to return to West Virginia to visit the outstanding facility.  Visitors follow a path which begins in prehistoric times with an introduction to Appalachian geology, and are led through a chronological series of galleries depicting different eras in state history.  The second presentation of the morning was Melungeons 101 by Dr. Terry Mullins.  Terry is a Professor of Education at Concord University, and demonstrated his mastery of education technology with a superb power point presentation covering what is known of Melungeon history and the many unknowns that continue to intrigue researchers.  His program was so helpful in introducing newcomers to the Melungeon story that I would like to see it featured at all forthcoming Unions.  He has presented it to many other groups, most recently to an educational conference in Nevada, and made it so entertaining and informative that veteran MHA conference-goers enjoyed it as much as those new to the subject.  Dr. Elizabeth Hirschman of Rutgers University closed out the morning sessions with an intriguing and very current report on DNA profiling of the Appalachian Melungeon community.  She is a very lively and amusing presenter, whose enthusiasm for her subject matter was infectious.   It is hard to imagine any student falling asleep in one of her classes!  She had just gotten DNA Fingerprint profiles of her own parents, which she discussed along with her own matches to give a vivid picture of the complexity of Melungeon genetic heritage.  In addition to matches from Africa that suggest sub-Saharan admixture, Beth has found abundant evidence of Gypsy ancestry along with Mediterranean matches that are often found in Southerners with mixed ancestry. Since my own DNA Tribes profile, just received in June, points to Mediterranean Gypsy ancestry, I was especially fascinated by Beth’s discussion of the Spanish Inquisition and its effects on migration to the New World.

The Friday afternoon session opened with a very heartfelt, moving presentation by Dr. Irene Wright, who discovered her Melungeon heritage as an adult thanks to Brent Kennedy’s book Melungeons: Resurrection of a Proud People.  Growing up in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky, Irene experienced discrimination from both white and black communities, and found comfort and security only within her own multicolored Moore family.  Although classified with many different racial and color labels in the past, Dr. Wright rejects them all and gave an inspiring call to the audience to join her in rising above them: “We are not ONE thing, we are EVERYTHING!”   Her presentation concluded with a slide presentation of family history that gave us a sense of why she had accomplished so much in a distinguished academic career.  Even without the support of a community, her extended family gave her the self-respect and drive that were so evident in her presentation to the Union.  The afternoon presentations continued with a report on medical aspects of Appalachian mixed ancestry by Nancy Morrison and Dr. Dorval Donohoe. The conferees were very interested in Nancy’s experience with hereditary illness that points to non-European ancestry, and Dr. Donohoe’s comments on the inadequate response of the medical profession to certain little-known diseases. When a panel that had been scheduled to discuss Appalachian diversity in the southern coal fields failed to materialize due to scheduling conflicts, illness, and an attorney held up in court, Rick Abraham spoke in its place on his experience of growing up in Logan County as a Syrian descendant surrounded by immigrants from all over southern Europe as well as earlier white and black inhabitants of the area who came to the coal fields seeking a better life.  He also gave the audience a brief overview of the conflicts and concerns held by many of those same families today as it relates to the regions’ continuing coal industry and the national debate.  The final afternoon lecture was a slide presentation on the Winton Triangle by Marvin T. Jones.  As a professional photographer, Jones has collected and restored several thousand images from Hertford County, North Carolina, where he was born to a family with hundreds of years of history in a mixed-ancestry community in the central portion of the county.  All the standard generalizations about mixed groups in the South are belied by the people of the Winton Triangle.  Instead of being relegated to marginal lands, they were the earliest landowners to arrive in the 1740s and held land that was very productive, and among the best acreage in the county.  Despite their nonwhite legal status, the community survived and thrived with its own businesses, educational institutions, and even a beach resort.  Marvin’s presentation was so fascinating that many conferees advised us that they wanted him invited to return next year to present at the 14th Union.  Friday afternoon concluded with a showing of Julie Williams Dixon’s acclaimed documentary Melungeon Voices.   Just as the National Genealogical Society audience in Raleigh, NC had received the film with rapt attention, those at the Union who had not been exposed to the documentary were impressed by the quality of the film.  Responding to comments made earlier in the day by Dr. Irene Wright to “be a witness regarding the Melungeons and other mixed ethinic groups” Ms. Dixon informed the audience of some of the venues the film has been used in over the past year which include it being part of a Diversity conference targeted to social workers held in Dalton, GA.  The film was also one of only four documentaries chosen for screening at the Appalachian Film Festival in Huntington, WV in the Spring of 2009.  There are also plans for the film to be used at a seminar being planned by a chapter of the DAR in Virginia. You can read about the film, check for screenings in your area,  and see a preview of the film at  After the film, conferees went to a reception at the Logan Area Public Library, where we enjoyed the hospitality of the library board president JoAnn Farmer, who is the sister of MHA president S.J. Arthur.

Saturday’s program opened with an informative and provocative presentation on the Tuscarora Project by University of Memphis historian Dr. Arwin D. Smallwood.  I had suggested both Marvin Jones and Dr. Smallwood because the Melungeon audience had been so receptive to my program on northeastern North Carolina at the 2008 Union; the MHA Board enthusiastically affirmed this when we met to begin planning 13th Union.  Both of them were tremendously well received, and some said they could listen to Arwin for three hours.  He began with a thorough explanation of the Tuscarora tribe’s contact with Europeans and Africans that preceded arrival of the British in 1685.  This was succeeded by a survey of the history of the tribe through the Tuscarora War of 1711-13.  The heart of Smallwood’s presentation was the fate of the Tuscarora, already a triracial people, as they were dispersed in many directions during the rest of the 18th century.  He left us with some suggestions about how, why, and where the Tuscarora may have contributed to the Melungeon mixture.  In hopes of hearing more along these lines, the MHA board is inviting Arwin to return next year and continue reporting on his Tuscarora Project.    The second presentation of the morning was the most I had most eagerly awaited, as it explained possible relationships between Melungeons and Gypsies of English and Irish origin.  Caitlin Graham has just completed a bachelor’s degree in history with an anthropology minor at the University of South Carolina, and her senior honors thesis was of special interest to the MHA audience.  She traced the history of Gypsy persecution in the British Isles, which led to their being transported to the colonies as undesirables.  Some cultural traits of Melungeons are similar to those of Gypsies, whose history of migration from India to Europe might explain certain DNA results such as those reported by Beth Hirschman.  As with so many earlier speakers, the audience was left wanting to know more about the Gypsy/Melungeon connection and hoping that Caitlin will return as a presenter at future unions.  The Saturday morning’s session concluded with a presentation that matched the high quality of many preceding it.  I was proud that Frank Sweet of Backintyme Publications is my publisher, when I heard his detailed explanation of the history of human migration which was crystal clear, flawlessly delivered, and fascinating even to those of us with no background in genetic anthropology.  He traced the human emergence from Africa and dispersal around the world over a period of more than a hundred thousand years, making the findings of a science that is all too little understood easily accessible by laymen.  His presentation was enhanced by many maps showing how humans adapted as we migrated around the world, which many in the audience found very helpful.  Frank has presented on several other topics at previous Unions, and always demonstrates a mastery of detail along with an ability to explain science and history to audiences new to his subject matter.

The final Saturday afternoon session provided both new information as well as reflections to help conferees make sense of all that had gone before.  Gregory Carroll of the West Virginia State Archives opened with an explanation of how Native Americans are very rarely recorded as such in state records, where the “mulatto” designation is far more frequently found.  For a variety of reasons similar to those faced by Indians in North Carolina and Virginia, Native Americans in the Mountain State were highly motivated to conceal their heritage in census and other records.  As a professional archivist, Carroll was very well prepared to handle the questions about genealogical research inspired by his illuminating presentation.  Portuguese presence in the New World was the topic of MHA board member Manuel Mira, who tied together many previous references to Mediterranean presence in the New World with personal reflections on his experiences as a researcher.  Among his many anecdotes, the one which stood out for me was his experience in northeastern North Carolina tracing clues to a local mixed-ancestry group called “Portuguese.”  Sometimes research into multiethnic groups can arouse suspicion and distrust, but Mira’s intrepid search for Portuguese traces in America was undeterred by these occupational hazards.  Although many of the Union speakers are deservedly admired, appreciated, and respected for their contributions, there is one who is absolutely loved by all who meet her.  Johnnie Gibson Rhea shared her personal stories of growing up on Newman’s Ridge, and anyone who has heard her knows what a master storyteller she is.  In addition to authoring three books on her family heritage, Johnnie expresses her creativity through handicrafts.   She concluded her presentation with the moment of the Union that was the greatest fun: giving out many prizes of her own making to audience members whose names were drawn from a hat.  By the end of her talk, most of us had acquired a crocheted hat or headband, handmade beads, or a variety of other handmade items.  If Dr. Smallwood’s presentation was the intellectual high point of the Union, Johnnie’s was the emotional homecoming that made us all feel a sense of belonging.  In his concluding address, clinical psychologist Dr. Elmer Maggard explored the lessons that can be learned from the experience of Melungeons.   He talked about the psychological effects of a legacy of oppression, which can be found in many mixed ancestry groups.  The immediate reaction is flight, and the migrations of Melungeons and related groups show that this option was often the one chosen.  Fighting back is also an option, as demonstrated by the Lumbees in the post-Civil War era with the Lowrie gang or their later triumph over the Klan.  All too often the reaction is to deny one’s identity and pretend to be something else—a form of cultural amnesia.  Sometimes oppressed groups are martyred, or go underground to fight.  But the option recommended by Dr. Maggard is the formation of community, in which healing of the damage wrought by oppression can be found in mutual support and assistance through sharing experiences and life stories.  In ending on such a positive note, Elmer suggested the fundamental objective of MHA as one of healing.

The Unions closed with an MHA annual meeting in which president S. J. Arthur thanked all the presenters, conferees, and Chief Logan staff for a nearly flawless event and sought input from the audience as to the areas they most enjoyed as well as where we could improve next year’s gathering.  Those of us staying over Sunday night were treated to a visit to Chief Logan State Park where curator Elizabeth Williams opened the museum for us after hours.  This allowed us to get to know our host state and region more immediately, through the many informative and moving exhibits in the museum as well as the beauty of the rugged countryside.


MHA is already making plans for 14th Union and will be incorporating the input of attendees as we go forth.  The Board will be meeting no later than the fall of this year.  MHA president, S. J. Arthur, did ask attendees (and is asking, via this blog, those who did not get to attend 13th Union) to send suggestions for 14th Union to her at  She will share those with the Board and planning committee.

K. Paul Johnson