13th Union Report

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 melungeonvoices.com.  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 sujear@yahoo.com.  She will share those with the Board and planning committee.

K. Paul Johnson