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Melungeon gathering to take place in Southwest Virginia

June 26th, 2014 1:44 pm by Elizabeth Saulsbury

Melungeon gathering to take place in Southwest Virginia

Wayne Winkler

Perhaps no group of people in the Appalachia have sparked as many stories, legends and folk tales as the Melungeons.

Melungeons are a population of mixed race that is associated with the areas of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. Melungeons and their descendants have been the objects of myth, fables and discrimination throughout history, with the truth about this unique population only coming forth in recent times.

In celebration of the unique Melungeon heritage and in recognition of the research done on the topic, the 18th Annual Melungeon Union will take place Friday in Vardy and Saturday in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The theme of this year’s gathering is “The Future of Melungeon Research.” The event is sponsored by the Melungeon Heritage Association and the public is invited to attend.

“The Melungeons are a mixed population that was first documented in the 1800s,” said Wayne Winkler, a member of the Melungeon Heritage Association and author of “Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia.”

“They’ve always been somewhat of a mystery,” Winkler said.

The mystery regarding the origins of this group of people resulted in much speculation and folklore in the past. In the 19th century, theories about the Melungeons’ ancestry included ancient Carthaginians, shipwrecked pirates and Portugese explorers. Prejudice against the Melungeons continued for decades.

“This was something that was suppressed in the past,” said Winkler. “There was a lot of legal discrimination and social discrimination in the past.”

It wasn’t until much later in time that actual research about the Melungeons began to take place.

“It’s really been since the 1960s that the Melungeons have been willing to talk about their heritage and to allow serious research to be done on the topic,” Winkler said.

Thousands of people have since discovered that genealogical connections to this population, and family connections to the Melungeon people are common to this area.

“There are a lot of people in this part of the country who have a connection to the Melungeons,” Winkler said.

Both Melungeon descendants and the public can learn more about and celebrate this unique group of people by attending the gathering.

The event will begin with a day of celebration at 10 a.m. Friday at the Vardy Community Historical Society’s historical museum in the former Vardy mission church and the nearby restored cabin of Melungeon matriarch Mahala Mullins. Saturday beginning at 9 a.m., Mountain Empire Community College will host a day of programs, which includes five authors’ presentations and a members’ meeting.

“There are many different disciplines involved in Melungeon research, and that’s kind of what will be represented this weekend,” said Winkler.

These disciplines include historical, scientific, sociological and psychological research.

Winkler explained the importance of learning more about the Melungeon people, both for descendants and non-descendants alike.

“For people of Melungeon descent, it’s about knowing who we are and about our family history,” Winkler said. “This tells a lot about the history of the country and who made this country. It was a whole conglomeration of people, not just one group, and the interaction between these groups of people was a whole lot more complex than old history books would have us believe.”

The conference registration fee for Saturday is $10. The Melungeon Heritage Association also encourages donations to the Vardy Community Historical Society to support its work in preserving its historic Melungeon community.

For more information on registration and lodging, see the association’s website at www.melungeon.ning.com or email the organization’s treasurer Paul Johnson at kpj24112@gmail.com.

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