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.

In Memory of Claude Collins (March 19, 1927-February 15, 2017)

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Mr. W. C. “Claude” Collins, long-time and beloved board member of MHA, passed away Wednesday, February 15, 2017.     A service of celebration for his life was held at Sneedville (Tennessee) United Methodist Church on Saturday, February 18, 2017, 6:00 p. m.


Claude lived and worked in Hancock County his entire life. A graduate of the masters program at the University of Tennessee, he worked in the Hancock County Educational System for 45 years as a teacher and then a food service director.

Those who knew Claude may remember that he attended Vardy School and told stories of his hardscrabble life growing up on Newman’s Ridge –of walking down a mountain path in mornings to attend school—and how those teachers and leaders at Vardy School inspired him to become a life-long educator.   Presented the first life-time achievement award from MHA, he was as genuine as they come and a mentor to many.     

One person remembered him as the “best of people”—one with “spunk and a positive outlook on life.”  This person remembered thinking once:  “I’d like to be more like Claude.  Maybe I am a better person for having known him.”   

We who knew Claude are all better people for the experience.

Joint Statement from Vardy Community Historical Society and MHA

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A Joint Statement from the Vardy Community Historical Society (VCHS) and the Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA )

We the members of VCHS, in conjunction with the members of MHA, jointly issue the following statement of principles:

(1). That we have and will continue to work both independently and together to preserve the heritage, culture and artifacts of the Melungeon and Melungeon-related populations and their descendants.

(2). That we recognize the likely kinship of many of these populations that have spread throughout the Southeast and their likely shared origins at some point in the past.

(3) That we do not condone nor subscribe to any theory or position that separates any group of human beings from any other group.  The Melungeons and indeed, all related populations should not be viewed as “little races” or “singular species,” but instead as what they are: human beings with cultural, genetic, and spiritual connections to one another.  We believe establishing this broader kinship does not dilute our uniqueness as human beings, but enhances it as we seek to be a model for better racial and ethnic relations.

(4) We recognize and respect that each individual population, and indeed, each family, will possess its own unique heritage and family traditions, and that no two “Melungeon” families are exactly the same.  A tolerance for these differences – and the oral traditions that accompany them – should not only be present but encouraged.

(5) We strongly discourage any efforts or activities that attempt to exclude others from the discovery and celebration of their heritage.  The Melungeons as a people do not “belong” to anyone or any specific organization, group of families, e-mail lists, or websites.  There is no “litmus” test, genetics test, or genealogical “test” that serves as an entrance ticket to being a “Melungeon.”  All that we can say with certainty is that some of our early pioneer ancestors and relatives were labeled “Melungeons” by their neighbors and others. However, and importantly, we know with equal certainty that many of their brothers and sisters migrated elsewhere and avoided the stigma of being known as a Melungeon.  Therefore, common sense tells us that we have cousins living all over this nation, some of whom know of their “Melungeon” heritage and many of whom probably do not.

(6) We strongly encourage all those with Melungeon heritage and all those who find the Melungeon story inspirational to join with us in celebrating our proud heritage and in working to bring people together.  There is a great need in this strife torn world for increased understanding and
harmony, certainly between nations but also between races, ethnic groups,cultures, and most certainly between those who call themselves Melungeon.

R. C. Mullins, President, VCHS

Wayne Winkler, President, MHA


Thanks to 20th Union Participants from MHA president Scott Withrow

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As president of the Melungeon Heritage Association, I thank those members and others who made 20th union successful and enjoyable. Thanks also to those institutions and organizations in the Big Stone Gap and Vardy communities whose collaboration with MHA led to an excellent three days of speakers and discussion. Much thanks to Julie Williams Dixon for heroutstanding Friday night presentation/exhibit, “People and Their People. (see above for a sample of the work)

Attendance at the four Union events totaled 153 (25 on Thursday at MECC, 40 on Friday at Vardy, 45 Friday evening at the Southwest Virginia Historical Museum and State Park, and 43 Saturday at MECC.)  Approximately 90 members and friends traveled to be with us from Kentucky, Illinois, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. – Scott Withrow