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Melungeon Heritage Association plans gathering in North Carolina

Dylan Chesser • May 26, 2015 at 1:00 AM

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.

The Melungeon Heritage Association announced in a news release that it will hold its 19th annual gathering June 26-27 at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina.

“One does not have to be Melungeon to become a member of MHA and attend unions,” MHA President Scott Withrow said in the release. “People of Melungeon ancestry, those who think they have Melungeon ancestry, and those simply interested in Melungeon research are all welcome.”

Melungeons are a people of mixed ethnic ancestry who were first documented in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia. Groups of similar origin can be found along the Atlantic seaboard.

According to melungeon.org, the MHA website, the term Melungeon appeared in the U.S. in 19th century and was used in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina to label people of mixed ethnic ancestry. Researchers refer to Melungeons and other similar groups as “tri-racial isolates,” as they cannot be placed in any of America’s normal ethnic categories.

“Melungeons didn’t really consider themselves Melungeons until fairly recently,” said Wayne Winkler, consultant and former MHA president. “It was a name that was an insult. It was name that was used by people outside of your group. … So, they were kept a little bit apart. They were considered low class.”

According to the MHA website, many Melungeons have lost their collective identities and, through intermarriage and migration, have blended into the general population.

Winker said the gatherings provide Melungeons an opportunity to discuss the latest findings about Melungeon heritage and connect with other Melungeons.

“(The gatherings) maintain a sense of community,” Winkler said. “Like most people in the Appalachians, the Melungeons were part of a great exodus back in the 1940s and 1950s on up into the 1960s. People moved to different parts of the country, looking for opportunity.”

The news release said that on June 26 presenters will discuss Warren Wilson College’s role in providing educational opportunities for Melungeon children in Hancock County, Tennessee; the role Melungeons played in the Civil War; and “Melungeon Voices,” a film by Julie Williams Dixon. There will also be a family history panel June 26.

On June 27, Winkler will present an overview of the Melungeons, Elon University Professor Kathy Lyday will discuss Melungeon stereotype use in the 21st century, author Frank Sweet will examine people who have crossed the color line from black to white, and various family groups will hold genealogical chats.

Presentations will take place in the Canon Lounge in the Gladfelter Student Center on the Warren Wilson campus. Registration will begin at 11 a.m. June 26 and 8 a.m. June 27. The cost for one day is $10, and the cost for both days is $15. Housing and meals will be made available on campus for those who register before June 15.

The registration form is available online at www.melungeon.org.

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