20th Union Schedule

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Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and Vardy, Tennessee


Thursday, June 23

Pre-conference Genealogy Workshop-Mountain Empire Community College. The following speakers have been contracted to do a genealogy workshop on Thursday, June 23, prior to 20th Union. The speakers are sponsored by Wampler Library, Mountain Empire Community College at no charge to members of the Wise County Historical Society (WCHS) or theMelungeon Heritage Association (MHA). Contact Mike Gilley at mgilley@mecc.edu to register (registration is encouraged).

9:00 a. m.-12:00 noon…Paula D. Royster: African American Research for the Novice.

Ms.Royster is a Humanities and Culture doctoral student at Union Institute and University where she is working on a creative dissertation on the Ottoman Empire’s role in the Arab-Oriental Slave Trade.

1:30 – 2:50 PM……….. Philip Edwards: “Family of Tree Makers”: Computer-Automated Genealogy in 2016.  

Philip Edwards is a Hybrid Academic Librarian and Information Technology Specialist at Wampler Library of Mountain Empire Community College (MECC) in Big Stone Gap.

3:10 – 4:30 PM……….. Lynda Davis-Logan: DNA for Family History Studies (DNA terminology, various companies for DNA)

Lynda is a retired teacher who has studied genealogy for 50 years. She attended 13th Union in 2011 at Chief Logan Conference Center, Logan, West Virginia, where she was motivated to begin a study of DNA.


Friday, June 24

Those wanting to carpool/caravan to Vardy, meet at the Holiday Inn parking lot at 1051 Park Ave NW, Norton, VA 2427 at 10 a.m. (Norton is approximately 12 miles north of Big Stone Gap). For those driving on their own from Big Stone Gap or elsewhere, use the following address as a GPS point in Vardy, Tennessee: 3865 Vardy Blackwater, Sneedville, TN 37869-6432. A hand-drawn map (not to scale) with directions from Big Stone Gap to Vardy is included. Vardy Community is one valley over and north of Sneedville, Tennessee in the Ridge and Valley Province of Tennessee-Virginia. Meet at the Vardy Museum/former Vardy Presbyterian Church.


10:30 a. m. …………….Leave Holiday Inn parking lot, Norton, Virginia for carpooling/caravanning to Vardy, Tennessee. Drive on your own from other locations if you wish.

11:45 a. m………………Arrive Vardy (approximate time)

11:45 a.m. -12:30 p. m.Lunch at Vardy (sandwich lunch provided, bring a lunch if you require

gluten-free or an otherwise special diet)

12:30-2:30 p. m……….. Tour Vardy Historical Museum/District

6:00 p. m…………… .Reception (light fare food and refreshments), Victorian Parlor,

Southwest Virginia Historical State Park, 10 E 1st St N, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219. Exhibit of Julie Williams Dixon’sphotographic prints, “People and Their People.” Afterwards, the exhibit will be moved to our Saturday meeting site (Goodloe Center), Mountain Empire Community College.

7:00 p.m……………. .Julie Williams Dixon. Following the reception, Julie will talk briefly about her photography exhibit, “People and Their People,” and also facilitate a group discussion focused on the value of photography in historical genealogical study. Again, she welcomes participants to bring family portraits to share with the group. (Again at Southwest Virginia Historical State Park, 10 E 1st St N, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219)


Saturday, June 25

We will meet in the Goodloe Center, adjacent to Phillips Taylor Hall, Mountain Empire Community College, 3441 Mountain Empire Rd, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219. Directions to the Goodloe Center: Mountain Empire Community College is located off US Highway 23 just south of Business 23 exits for Big Stone Gap. Traveling south from Norton, turn right onto the campus. Turn immediately to the left on the Campus Loop Road. Travel to the top of the hill and park in parking lot E on your left. Traveling north towards Norton, turn left onto the campus just before Business 23 exits for Big Stone Gap. Turn immediately to the left on the Campus Loop Road. Travel to the top of the hill and park in parking lot E on your left. All activities are in the Goodloe Center across the road from parking lot E. Handicapped parking is available behind the Goodloe Center (See the campus map). Signs will be posted. Williams Dixon’s photographic prints, “People and Their People, will be displayed in the Goodloe Center.


9:00 a. m………………Announcements: Mike Gilley, Scott Withrow

9:30 a.m-10:15 a. m…..Wayne Winkler: Melungeon Keynote Talk

10:15-10:30 a.m……. Break

10:30 a. m.-11:15 ………Stephanie Musick: Tazewell County Schools in the 1930s

11:15-11:30 a. m…... Announcements

11:30 a. m. -1:00 p. mLunch on your own

1:00-1:45 p. m……….. .Laura Tugman: Ongoing Melungeon Research

1:45-2:30 p.m. ………. .S. J. Arthur, Wayne Winkler (Paul Johnson-Introductions): History of

the Melungeon Heritage Association

2:30- 3:00 p. m. ……….Break/Executive Committee meeting/prepare for final


2:45 or 3:00-4:00 p. m...Final announcements/raffle

Melungeon Heritage Association plans gathering in North Carolina– Johnson City Press

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From Dylan Chesser in the Johnson City Press, a story dated May 25, opening paragraph excerpted below: A group of people historically estranged because their ancestry did not fit into accepted United States ethnic categories is trying to spread awareness of their history and reconnect with their roots.

Read more: Melungeon Heritage Association plans gathering in North Carolina | … http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/article/126794/melungeon-heritage-a… 
Follow us: @JCPress on Twitter | JohnsonCityPress on Facebook

Melungeons Explore Mysterious Heritage at Local Gathering– Asheville CItizen-Times

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The first local publicity for 19th Union has appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times this week.  The opening sentences are:

The dark-skinned mountaineers whose origins are shrouded in mystery will be returning to Asheville next month.

The Melungeon Heritage Association will hold its 19th annual meeting at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa June 26 and 27.

The Melungeons are a group of mixed ethnic ancestry first documented in northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. Similar groups of “mysterious” people, or at least remnants of these groups, are found all along the Atlantic seaboard. Anthropologists called them “racial islands” or “tri-racial isolates.”

See the rest of the article at:


“The Melungeons Got Me!– and I Couldn’t Have Been More Tickled!

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The Melungeons Got Me!—and I Couldn’t Have Been More Tickled!

By Linda Ladd Townsend

I attended the 18th Union: A Melungeon Gathering, (June, 2014), and felt instantly included. I am writing this summary to encourage other newbies to attend a Union, to answer the question of “What happens at a Union gathering?” and also to say “Thank You!” to the old timers, who helped me to feel so welcome.

My experience started on Friday on a meandering trail into the heart of Melungeon country–Vardy, TN. Anyone who has read anything about Melungeons on the internet knows about Vardy, Newman’s Ridge, Blackwater and Big Haley (who is said to have weighed many hundreds of pounds), and her moonshine cabin. But to actually experience the effort of getting into this area, even today, makes one appreciate the remote, primitive life of the early Melungeons. Good luck finding Vardy on a map or even your GPS at times. Sometimes it comes up in Sneedville, TN and other times around Blackwater, VA. Be sure and load it into your GPS before heading out of your internet connection, as you will not be able to access it as you travel away from civilization. The sayings that “you can’t get there from here” and “you need to get lost to find the place” begin to play on your mind. Without a doubt, the trip proved to be a magnificent adventure. Keep in mind that you left the interstate a long time ago, and just about the time your spouse starts whining that you must be lost and wants to just give up and go back—just recalibrate your time frame—you are on Melungeon time and are probably just about half-way there. Get yourself into a Melungeon state of mind and allow a lot of time to take it all in and enjoy yourself, rather than stressing over why you aren’t there yet. One high point is the sheer beauty of the area, lush and green, with Tiger Lilies growing wild along the sometimes gravel road. High ridge roads give views into patchwork-quilt panoramas of valley fields and homes. This puts a face to the expression “back in them thar Hills and Hollers.” In regard to visiting Vardy, the experience includes both getting there and the destination.

When you arrive it will look just like on the internet, except on a very grand scale. It is hard to take a picture that will do justice to the size of Newman’s Ridge and the beauty of Vardy Valley. No wonder some people lived together rather than getting married—it was just too darn far into town to get legal. Except for the need for work and education, due to the sheer beauty of life here, who would really want to leave? I have already returned many times in my mind’s eye, when I want to go on a mini-vacation to a peaceful place.

The real face, as well as heart and soul, of Vardy is DruAnna Williams Overbay of the Vardy Community Historical Society. The home where she was born is just a stone’s throw from the church. She went above and beyond to show us every detail of the museum church, complete with a model of the school that was built by the early Presbyterians. She described the early times in Vardy Valley from the late 1800’s to the 1950’s, where the well-educated teachers devoted their lives to teaching the children, who would otherwise have been “lost in the woods” in regard to higher learning. The biggest surprise was to learn how well educated the Vardy School children became, many receiving college degrees. Much love is evident in the preservation of the Presbyterian Church and Museum and the contribution of a donation is willingly given and much needed to keep the lights on and the AC running. You might not return, but someone else researching their heritage will make the pilgrimage, and you want it to still be there for them. It is definitely a touchstone and epicenter of the Melungeon heritage in the area.

Across the road from the church, what a treat it was to see the lovingly restored Mahalia Mullins cabin; the place where Big Haley raised her many children, cooked her brew, had fine dishes and furniture, and died, requiring the destruction of a wall to remove the large coffin that was constructed from her bed for her burial. There are restroom facilities, but bring your own food and drinks; or you could sign up in advance for the box lunch offered for $5. Gas up before you leave to come, as there are no services in Vardy.

We also viewed the documentary The Melungeons of Vardy Valley; a beautifully created intimate view of the history, the people and the current excitement, and sometimes the ambivalence, of researching one’s Melungeon roots. The music combined with the artistic graphics serves to enhance the experience of being drawn into the heart of the heritage of the Melungeons. Anyone with any interest in Melungeons needs to put a visit to Vardy on their Bucket List, and if DruAnna’s gracious hospitality greets you, expect to have a deep sense of “coming home.”

Friday night was a social time at Mountain Empire Community College at Big Stone Gap, VA. Food was provided and it was easy to mingle with the “old timers,” the authors and presenters. I found out later that the lady who came up to me and said “Glad to see another redhead,” was S J Arthur, the president of the last few years. Brent Kennedy was there; my beginning knowledge of Melungeons came from him. Arwin Smallwood gave me more information in a few minutes than I could have found in a lifetime on the internet, just while we sat at the same table eating dinner. I quickly found that this group consists of a highly educated group of professionals with a passion for all things Melungeon, and are willing and eager to share their knowledge; along with others like me, who are everyday people just beginning to search their Melungeon roots. One man had just joined the week before and had traveled from Arkansas. Seeking Melungeon roots makes people do strange and wonderful things.

Saturday was a full day of presentations by experts, many with PhD level research. Where else can you sit at the feet of the masters for about $10 for the whole day? Topics covered included DNA testing, Jewish and Arab roots, Spiritualism, and the definitive answer to “What happened to the lost colony? Another lady, who was raised in Michigan, reported how she gradually discovered her Melungeon heritage and developed her cultural identity. Utilizing the interviews of actual Melungeons, a research project was presented outlining the results of examining the ethnic identify development process and life experiences of the Melungeons, particularly the impact of social dynamics on self-identification. This is only a small sampling of the materials presented, but it gives an idea as to the depth of the presentations.

A complete book store was available and many of the authors were present to sign my copies. Stacy Mae Webb, author and owner of Backintyme book publishers, was present. She happens to live in the area where I was raised in west KY and offered to help with my brick wall. (It appears that my Shepherd line from Christian Co, KY may have roots back to the Sappony Indians from Person Co, N. Carolina and may even go back to the Lost Colony). I got to meet Paul Johnson, Treasurer, who had been so helpful in getting me registered as a member of the Association. He had also quickly answered my initial query with very helpful information; all within a day or so of my posting.

A business meeting was held where the memory of a cornerstone member Johnnie Gibson Rhea was honored and Melungeon oriented door prizes were awarded to most in attendance. A partnership between the Association and the community college was celebrated, securing a repository for the history of the Association and a place of study for future seekers. Although this was my first attendance at a Union, I felt very welcomed by those who had been to every one.

According to folklore, parents used to frighten their children into obedience by threatening them that if they strayed from the path they were told to follow, the Melungeons would get them. In other areas of the country, this threat could have been called the boogeyman. So to anyone considering attending future Unions, I highly recommend the effort; dive in head first, the water is fine. But be fully warned–“The Melungeons just might get you–like they did me–and delightfully you will never be the same!”

MECC Announces Donations, Creation of Center for Melungeon Research

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This exciting news was a highlight of the closing portion of 18th Union in Big Stone Gap, a true milestone moment for Melungeon studies.  The MECC announcement opens with these words:

Big Stone Gap, VA — Mountain Empire Community College is pleased to announce three major donations that will establish the college as a major center for the collection of Melungeon research materials.

The Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA) announced plans to donate copies of all of the organization’s publications, videos and audios of presenters recorded during the last 17 years of Melungeon Union Gatherings, as well as all organizational paperwork collected since the organization’s formation. In addition, the college will receive the organization’s collection of memorabilia from past Melungeon Unions. 

Further excellent news is found in the rest of the announcement here.

18th Union Announcement

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The 18th Melungeon Union will be held June 27th and 28th in Vardy, Tennessee and Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The Vardy Community Historical Society invites MHA members and the public to a celebration on Friday, June 27th at its historical museum in the former Vardy church, and the nearby restored Mullins cabin.  Festivities will begin at 10 am.  On Saturday, June 28th, the Melungeon Heritage Association will sponsor a day of programs at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, including five author presentations and a members meeting.

One highlight of the Vardy presentations will be a showing of the 2013 documentary THE MELUNGEONS OF VARDY VALLEY  directed by Ian Cheney and co-produced by Marilyn Cheney and Todd Beckham. Beckham will be present to speak on the making of the film, which follows the quest of Troy Williams to understand his Melungeon heritage through DNA testing, with mixed reactions from family members. With an original soundtrack, black-and-white watercolor graphics and HD cinematography from the ridges and hollows of north-east Tennessee, the film is an intimate portrait of community, ancestry, and family.

A full day of activities  begins Saturday morning at 9 am at the Goodloe Center, Mountain Empire Community College (see map at link and directions below). Five scholarly presentations will address Melungeon history and identity from a variety of perspectives. Laura Tugman,Ph.D. will discuss her doctoral dissertation for Fielding Graduate University, “Seeking Roots in Shifting Ground: Ethnic Identity Development and the Melungeons of Appalachia.”  Nancy Gray Schoonmaker, Ph.D, will tell the intriguing story of “Abijah Alley of Long Hollow,” subject of a chapter in a forthcoming collection Con Artists, Enthusiasts, and True Believers. Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman, Ph.D.will explain DNA testing and Melungeon ancestry. Arwin Smallwood, Ph.D., now head of the history department at North Carolina A&T University, will describe ongoing reseach on mixed ancestry communities of North Carolina.  Tammy Stachowicz, Ph.D. will discuss her 2013 dissertation for Antioch University on the Melungeon movement.

There is no charge for the Vardy activities, but we encourage donations of $5 to support the work of VCHS.  Box lunches will be available for $5, but need to be reserved a week in advance. (No need to pay in advance but inform us in advance if you wish to have a box lunch, at kpj24112@gmail.com.) A “meet the authors” reception will he held at Goodloe Center, MECC, from 6 to 7:30 Friday evening, registration required but free of charge and open to the public. Books about Melungeons and related topics will be for sale, and many authors will be present, further details to be announced soon.

Registration for the Saturday conference is $10, waived for all college and high school students, and also for faculty and staff of MECC. Preregistration is encouraged but not required. Members may join by mail, sending  a membership form to MHA at P.O. Box 3604, Martinsville, VA 24115 with a check or money order for $12 dues.  They may also pay dues through Paypal (see BUY NOW button) and email their membership forms to kpj24112@gmail.com.

A special $79.90 rate for 18th Union conferees is available at the Holiday Inn, Norton, VA  and we encourage those needing overnight accommodations to reserve their rooms as soon as possible. When calling the Holiday Inn reservations number 1-877-410-6667 at the above link, mention MHA and the Melungeon gathering to get the group rate. Address: 1051 Park Ave NW, Norton, VA 24273 Phone:(276) 679-6655.

Driving Directions 

Mountain Empire Community College is located on U.S. Highway 23 South in Wise County, in the southwestern tip of Virginia between Kentucky and Tennessee. MECC’s address is 3441 Mountain Empire Road, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219.

MECC is located on the right just past the second Big Stone Gap, Virginia exit (there are only two Big Stone Gap exits), on southbound US Highway 23.

MECC is located roughly 12.5 miles north of Duffield, Virginia, situated on the left as you drive north on US Highway 23.

A registration form for 18th Union is attached, followed by an MHA membership application, for those interested in attending.

Registration18th Union.txt