The 23rd annual Melungeon Gathering takes place next month in Wytheville on June 20-22.
Melungeon is a designation historically given to a group of people with dark complexions and a mixed racial background found mainly in southern Lee County, Virginia, and the adjoining Tennessee counties of Hawkins and Hancock.
The little community of Vardy is traditionally considered the heart of Melungeon territory. It lies on Newman’s Ridge on the Vardy-Blackwater Road that straddles the Virginia-Tennessee border about five miles northeast of Sneedville, Tennessee.
Until the late 20th century the designation “Melungeon” was routinely applied pejoratively and with prejudice. This columnist first learned about that prejudice in 35-year-ago conversations with a then recent graduate of the former Powell Valley High School in Big Stone Gap.
Eventually, the stigma of a mixed racial heritage diminished and was conversely replaced by a sense of pride, accompanied by an Internet-stimulated interest in the genealogy and history of the Melungeon people. Factors that promoted this change of attitude included the outdoor drama about the Melungeons called “Walk Toward the Sunset,” staged in Sneedville, and Brent Kennedy’s book “The Melungeons: the resurrection of a proud people, an untold story of ethnic cleansing in America” (Mercer University Press, 1997). In 1997 the Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA) began its work.
Kennedy’s theories of Portuguese or Turkish Melungeon origins have not been sustained, but he remains a significant figure because of his role in bringing Melungeon studies into the mainstream and giving Melungeons dignity and bringing them community acceptance.
Roanoke Times columnist Ray Cox in a January 2018 column gave a fine explanation of why earlier generations of Melungeons clung to the legend of having Iberian origins writing “In the Jim Crow South, those of African-American descent were systematically denied their civil rights on racial grounds. Those of Portuguese origins were considered ‘white,’ despite their supposedly swarthy complexions.”
Modern Melungeon studies can be described as exhaustive. A 2012 online article by Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, and Janet Lewis Crain titled “Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population” is 108 pages long. It concludes: “Given the endogamous [marrying within the group] nature of the Melungeons, as DNA project administrators we encourage individuals to complete a personal DNA pedigree chart. It is only by finding individuals to represent the various lines in their own pedigree charts that one can determine the historical ethnic genesis of the Melungeon families.”
Because of his ongoing interest in the Spanish period of Virginia history, this columnist was an invited speaker at the 2007 11th Melungeon Gathering in Big Stone Gap, where he talked about the sixteenth-century Spanish incursions into Virginia. These incursions were almost three centuries before there is any legitimate historical documentation for Melungeons, which occurred first in 1810 as noted in the 1972 history of an Arkansas county.
Over the past two decades, the MHA has done a remarkably good job of bringing academically sound attention to the Melungeon story.
“Melungeon Women” will be the theme of the MHA’s 23rd annual gathering in Wytheville next month.
The June gathering, Thursday June 20, will feature visits to the Edith Bolling Wilson Museum to learn about America’s First Lady who claimed descent from Pocahontas. Friday, June 21 will feature a tour of Burke’s Garden, to learn about its geology and history and Melungeon connections, followed by an evening reception at the Bolling Wilson Hotel.
On Saturday June 22, a program of speakers will address the theme of the Gathering.
It costs $10 to attend any or all of the days of the Gathering, which is open to any interested person.
If you are interested go to http://melungeon.org/23rd-union-pre-registration-form/ or pay at the door.
Saturday’s session, which this columnist plans to attend, begins at 9 a. m. at the Meeting Center on the Community College campus in Wytheville. During that session there will be presentations about Melungeon women living and dead and about Melungeon women in literature.
Among the scheduled speakers at the Saturday session is Wayne Winkler, the radio station manager, at WETS at East Tennessee State University, former president of the MHA, and the author of the book “Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia,” (Mercer University Press, 2004). That book contributed to the change of attitude towards Melungeons. Perhaps I will see you in Wytheville?
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of southwest Virginia. He can be reached at email@example.com.