14th Union Report

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.