Author Archives: mha

23rd Melungeon Union in Wytheville, Virginia, June 21 and 22, 2019

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Plans are being made for the Melungeon Heritage Association’s 23rd Union (meeting) in Wytheville, Virginia, Friday and Saturday, June 21 and 22, 2019. This includes a trip to Burke’s Garden on Friday, a reception Friday evening, and speakers on Saturday. Our Saturday theme this year is “Melungeon Women.”

All persons interested are welcome, whether the interest is in Appalachian history, women’s history, or Melungeon history. The Melungeon Heritage Association invites membership, but one does not have to be a member to attend nor does one have to have Melungeon ancestry. The Melungeon Heritage Association is inclusive of persons who are Melungeon, think they are Melungeon or a related people, or simply have an interest in Melungeon history.

Wytheville is the county seat of Wythe County in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Convenient to interstate highways, Wythe County is largely rural with pasture land and forests and the historic north-flowing New River.

Look for updates on how to register, lodging discounts, and the speaker schedule. For more information, email the Melungeon Heritage Association at

22nd Union Report from MHA President Scott Withrow

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22nd Union Report from MHA President Scott Withrow

The rain held off and over 75 persons attended the 22 nd Union over a three-day period (June 21, 22, and 23) at Mountain Empire Community College, Big Stone Gap. Thanks to the expertise of the Mountain Empire Community College’s IT Department, we were able to visit with Adriana Trigiani by Skype. Thank you Mary Trigiani for being there in person and the remarkable dialogue with your sister.

There were many other wonderful speakers including Forest Hazel and Marvin T. Jones on Thursday. They both spoke of community and place in North Carolina. Friday’s trip to Vardy was good as usual where DruAnna Overbay spoke of the special place that is the Vardy Community. I am always reminded of how progressive the Vardy School was, much ahead of the county schools at that time with progressive teaching methods, nursing care, and hot lunches.

The Friday evening meeting at Southwest Virginia Museum was just as special when MHA honored Dr. Brent Kennedy with a plaque for his foundational role in Melungeon history and research and the Melungeon Heritage Association. Thanks to all those who spoke in support of—and their association with–Brent, including Shirley Hutsell, Julie Williams Dixon, President Emeritus S. J. Arthur, Brent’s wife Robyn, and his brother Richard (Richie). Thanks to the Museum for their partnership with MHA and their hospitality. And, thanks to Rose Trent and granddaughter, Emerald, for work on the reception and for their presence in what was a busy and stressful time for them otherwise.

Saturday started with a welcome by host, Michael Gilley of Mountain Empire Community College followed by Adriana Trigiani appearing by Skype. Dr. Terry Mullins brought his own family migration to life in the physiographic Ridge and Valley Province of the Appalachians. (I always like learning about Burkes Garden and the people associated with this unique landform.) We were indeed glad to have Dr. Arwin Smallwood back after a few years absence. Arwin is the
expert on Tuscarora migration. Paul Johnson and Julie Williams Dixon spoke on Lost
Communities and the Goinstown Community in North Carolina. Julie’s video was excellent, and to added to our knowledge of Goinstown. Carla Harper spoke last and led a discussion related to Goinstown. I am again reminded of the role of the NC-VA border area in western migration of Melungeon and other mixed-ancestry peoples, some moving on to Tennessee and Virginia mountain valleys and ridges and others finding a niche and putting down roots in the North
Carolina piedmont and mountainous New River Valley.

In the general meeting, we welcomed Heather Andolina of Underbyte Productions who spoke of her exciting Melungeon film project. We discovered, too, that Andy, Heather’s brother, uses drone technology to great effect. The meeting continued with suggested ideas for programs and future emphasis for unions. It is not unusual at all that people should have different ideas. That is a positive because it makes MHA a vibrant, innovational organization. I came away from the meeting with the idea that programs must provide a balance of speakers with different styles and
with different subjects. I look to members such as Dr. Kathy Lyday, Lisa Alther, and others to provide professional literary criticism of Dromgoole and others who have distorted and prejudiced views of Melungeons.

It was a good weekend in Big Stone Gap and, speaking for the Executive Committee, I thank everyone who attended. Thanks to Mountain Empire Community College and all those who partnered with us. Now it is time to begin planning for 2019!

22nd Union Update

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We are proceeding with plans for 22 nd Union at Big Stone Gap, Virginia and Vardy Community in Tennessee, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, June 21, 22, and 23 rd . There are two changes to the program schedule:

Adriana Trigiani has found she has to be away when she is scheduled to appear on Saturday, June 23 and has graciously offered to appear that day by Skype and also have her sister appear in person. We look forward to seeing and hearing Adriana by Skype and also having her sister with us.

Also, we have a new speaker from 3:00-3:50 p.m. on Saturday, June 23. Carla Harper, author of the novel, Worthy, continues the Road to Goinstown, begun by Julie Williams Dixon and Paul Johnson in Lost Communities: Mixed Race Settlements of the Virginia/Carolina Border from 2:00-2:50 p. m. Important to Melungeon studies, researchers and academicians have for decades drawn parallels to the Goinstown community (located along the Virginia and North Carolina border) and Melungeons. We are pleased to have Julie and Paul in tandem with Carla to bring us the story of this lost community.

For more information, email the Melungeon Heritage Association at

MHA Members by State, 2018

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As the as current membership total is 99, this pie chart with the number of members in each state can almost be considered as percentages as well. With members in 26 states and DC, we are a national organization, but with almost half in Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina we are also clearly a regional one.

Lodging Information and Press Release for 22nd Union

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Lodging for 22nd Union

The Comfort Inn at Big Stone Gap is now full for the dates of 22nd Union, but nearby Wise and Norton have several motels to choose from.

The Wise County Chamber of Commerce has an online directory of hotels, motels, and other lodging options throughout the county.

Melungeons Hold Annual Gathering in June

Best-selling author, television writer, and film director Adriana Trigiani will be the featured speaker at the 22nd annual gathering of the Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA). The event will take place on the last weekend in June in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and the Vardy Community in Hancock County, Tennessee. “It’s a gathering of Melungeons,” says MHA president Scott Withrow, “but everyone is welcome, whether you have Melungeon ancestry or just an interest in Appalachian history.”

The Melungeons are a mixed-ethnic group first documented in the Clinch River region of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia at the beginning of the 19th century. Most researchers have assumed the Melungeons were of mixed African, Native American, and European ancestry, but theories and legends about the Melungeons included descent from Portuguese adventurers, Spanish explorers, shipwrecked sailors or pirates, Muslims, Jews, and others. Because of their uncertain ancestry, the Melungeons faced legal and social discrimination through the mid-20th century. In recent years, Melungeon descendants have embraced their heritage and meet annually to listen to research presentations and share genealogies.

Melungeon characters have appeared in several recent works of fiction, including Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap (2000, Random House), set in Trigiani’s Virginia hometown. The book was made into a film in 2015, directed by Trigiani and starring Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg,Jenna Elfman,and Jasmine Guy. Trigiani has published 14 novels and two memoirs. She has also written scripts for television shows and was the writer and executive producer of City Kids for ABC/Jim Henson Productions, and oversaw the Lifetime television special Growing Up Funny and the Showtime series Linc’s.

The Melungeon Heritage Association gathering, entitled 22nd Union, will begin at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, June 21st, in Dalton-Cantrell Hall at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap. Author and historian Marvin Jones will offer presentations on the mixed ethnic community of Winton Triangle in eastern North Carolina. Forest Hazel will discuss the efforts of the Occaneechi Tribe of Virginia to gain federal recognition, and filmmaker and photographer Julie Williams Dixon will present her film Melungeon Voices and her photography exhibit, “People and Their People.” The evening will end with a 7:00 p.m. showing of the film Big Stone Gap.

On Friday, June 22nd, participants will travel by carpool or on their own to the Vardy Community in Hancock County, Tennessee, long recognized for its Melungeon population. The Vardy community was the site of a Presbyterian mission that served Melungeons during the first half of the 20th century, and a tour of the site will begin at 10:00 a.m. Author and Vardy historian DruAnna Overbay will present “Vardy: A Sense of Place” at 1:00 p.m. That evening at 6:00 p.m., a reception will be held at the Southwest Virginia Historical Museum State Park in Big Stone Gap, followed by family group discussions for those interested in exploring their own possible Melungeon connections.

Saturday, June 23rd, will open at 8:45 a.m. in Dalton-Cantrell Hall at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap. Adriana Trigiani will begin with a presentation entitled “An Appalachian Childhood in Big Stone Gap/Melungeons in Fiction.” Dr. Terry Mullins will present “One Melungeon Family’s Clinch Valley Odyssey,” and Dr. Arwin Smallwood will discuss “The Great Tuscarora Diaspora.” After lunch, Julie Williams Dixon and Paul Johnson will present “Lost Communities: Mixed Race Settlements of the Virginia/Carolina Border,” and Dr. Edward Davis IV will offer “From Melange in Angola to Melungeons of America.” Filmmaker Heather Andolina will discuss her documentary-in-progress about the Melungeons, followed by a general meeting of the Melungeon Heritage Association.

Registration for 22nd Union is $10 for any or all of the three days. Pre-registration information, as well as information about MHA and the presenters, is available online at Participants may also register on-site. Pre-registration is required for anyone who wants lunch at Vardy on Friday, June 22nd. Lodging information in Big Stone Gap is also available on the MHA website.


Adriana Trigiani to Speak at 22nd Melungeon Union in Big Stone Gap, Virginia

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The Melungeon Heritage Association will meet on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 21, 22, and 23, 2018 in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Keynote speaker for the annual conference is Adriana Trigiani, author of the Big Stone Gap series, including Big Stone Gap (2000), Big Cherry Holler (2001), Milk Glass Moon (2002), and Home to Big Stone Gap (2006) and director of the movie, Big Stone Gap. Ms. Trigiani will speak Saturday on the topic, “An Appalachian Childhood in Big Stone Gap/Melungeons in Fiction.” She is the perfect keynote speaker for this year’s theme, “Migration and Sense of Place.” [PLEASE NOTE: Ms. Trigiani now will be in Scotland directing a film during 22nd Union but will appear at the scheduled time via Skype, with her sister present in Big Stone Gap at the Union.]

Registration is $10 for any or all of the meeting days, which include a pre-conference program at Mountain Empire Community College on Thursday, June 21; a program at Vardy Community Historical Society in Tennessee on Friday, June 22; an evening reception and family group discussions at the Southwest Virginia Museum State Park; and speakers at Mountain Empire Community College on Saturday, June 23.

The Melungeon Heritage Association invites anyone to attend, whether they simply have an interest in Melungeon and regional ancestry, think they have Melungeon ancestry, or have documented Melungeon ancestry.

Also appearing for the first time this year as Union presenters are Dr. Edward Davis and Forest Hazel. Speakers returning to Union who are familiar to MHA members are (in alphabetical order) Julie Williams Dixon, K. Paul Johnson, Marvin T. Jones, Lynda Davis Logan, Dr. Terry Mullins and Dr. Arwin Smallwood. The schedule also includes several events in a non-lecture format such as a photography exhibit from Julie Williams Dixon, a tour of Vardy, and a showing of the film Big Stone Gap. Registration information and a more detailed schedule with presentation topics will be posted by late winter/early spring.

21st Union Report from MHA President Scott Withrow

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Someone who had never before attended a Union said of the coming-together of Melungeons for 21 st Union that it was like family. I agree: It has always been that way for me, a feeling of a large and extended family of cousins.

Twenty-first Union was a wonderful two days. I met old friends and made new ones, and missed those who weren’t there. Especially, I missed the late Claude Collins, who passed away this year, and the late Johnnie Gibson Rhea, both long-time Melungeon Heritage Association and Vardy Community Historical Society members. Each is still with us in memory and spirit.

Friday, over 75 people journeyed over Clinch Mountain to Vardy-Blackwater Valley nestled between Newman’s Ridge and Powell Mountain. DruAnna Williams Overbay was a wonderful host there as usual. The rain held off until after the Friday evening reception, attended by about 50 people.

Saturday’s speakers made it an instructive and interesting day—Dr. Tammy Stachowicz and students Chris Vernon, Emily Perleberg. Michelle VanTamelin, and Tony DeJarnett; Dr. Katherine Vande Brake, Lisa Alther, Wayne Winker and Dr. John Lee Welton, former director of Walk Toward the Sunset. A wonderful group of kids stole the show at the end, giving dramatic passages from Walk Toward the Sunset. Thanks to MHA Vice-President Laura Tugman for her part in directing the kids in their parts. We were pleased that Brent and Robyn Kennedy attended Saturday and that Onur Kaya, a university professor from Turkey whose Ph D dissertation is on Melungeons, attended both Friday and Saturday.

We are especially grateful this year that the Arts Fund of the East Tennessee Foundation gave us a $2,000 grant which we used to fund the union. The East Tennessee Foundation lives up to its principles of “thoughtful giving for stronger communities, better lives.”

We are also grateful this year to Walters State Community College for the wonderful meeting room. Walters State staff members were welcoming as were Morristown Chamber of Commerce staff and many Morristown residents who attended. Short of Vardy-Blackwater, I don’t think we could have met in a more Melungeon community, created by the out-migration from Hancock and other counties to Morristown over the years for jobs.

We are grateful for those who came to help– Eddie Manuel and Adam Manuel, Stephanie Musick, DruAnna Overbay, Steve Williams, Mike Gilley, and Bob Davis, among others. Special thanks is due Lynda Logan for her work preparing for and completing registration and to Rose Trent and Paul King for the same and for the food for the reception.

I enjoyed talking with former coal-miners and nurses– with educators, state park employees, students, authors, business people, book sellers, and others. Melungeons are part and parcel of the historic fabric of America.

All total, we had 84 persons attend on Saturday, broken down by states as: Florida-1, Illinois-2, Kentucky-3, Louisiana-1, Michigan-4, North Carolina-3, Ohio-6, South Carolina-1, Tennessee-43, Texas-6, Virginia-10, and West Virginia-2.

East Tennessee Foundation Arts Fund Grant to Support 21st Union

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The Melungeon Heritage Association has been approved to receive a grant in the amount of $2,000 from the Arts Fund of East Tennessee Foundation to support 21st Union in Morristown, June 23 and 24, 2017.   We thank the Board of Directors of East Tennessee Foundation for the grant and support of 21st Union.   Because of the grant we can adequately compensate our knowledgeable speakers and make our first meeting in Morristown a successful one.
The grant award was reported in this story from the Johnson City Press.