Melungeons to host annual gathering in Wytheville, Virginia

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Apr 29, 2019 at 8:12 PM

It’s been well over a century since the first Melungeons were documented in the Clinch River region of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, but researchers — and present-day Melungeons — are still trying to pinpoint the origins of this ethnic group from our region.

The Melungeon Heritage Association will be hosting its 23rd annual gathering in Wytheville, Virginia, on June 20-22, with the theme “Melungeon Women.”

While the exact origins of the Melungeons remains unknown, the struggles they faced in the 1800s and 1900s are very well documented.

“Melungeon” was initially considered a slur and a word used to add more intrigue to one of more than 200 mixed-ethnic groups in the United States — that is, until the late 1960s.

In “Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia,” author Wayne Winkler wrote that when a 1969 outdoor drama — “Walk Towards the Sunset” — debuted, the stigma around the word changed and instead became a beacon of pride for Melungeon descendants.

“Rather than try and assimilate and lose the name they had, the Melungeons sort of celebrated (the name) and took pride in it, particularly after the 1960s when there was an outdoor drama staged in Hawkins County about the Melungeons,” Winkler said.

“I’m particularly interested in that because I think that’s when the Melungeons really took pride in who they were.”

Before that, however, Melungeons faced discrimination as people of color living in a era of U.S. history that wasn’t too fond of them. Winkler noted that in the late 1800s, eight Melungeons were arrested for voting illegally in Hawkins County, as the Tennessee Constitution at the time said that only white men were allowed to vote.

“I think people (now) are able to celebrate their ancestry without any of the negative aspects of it,” Winkler said, drawing on his own experience as a Melungeon descendant. “By the time of the late 1960s, most of the stigma — not all — had been eradicated.”

Now, Melungeon ancestry has become something many Melungeon descendants have become more interested about, especially as the history surrounding their origins remains clouded.

Melungeons are considered a multi-racial group, with most having DNA from African, Portuguese, Native American and European ancestors, but that’s as specific as it gets, for now.

Still, that ancestry DNA profile prompted the MHA to include a lecture by Lynda Logan and Stephanie Musick in this year’s gathering, with the topic “Who Do You Think You Are? Melungeon Mitochondrial DNA.”

June’s Melungeon gathering will kick off at the birthplace of former first lady Edith Bolling Wilson, who some Melungeons believe may have been a Melungeon herself, though she traced her lineage to Pocahontas.

The annual Melungeon gathering is something Winkler describes as an “extended-family gathering,” pointing to the fact most people in attendance share similar ancestry profiles — leading some to discover just how closely related they may be to others in attendance.

Pre-registration forms for this event are available at www.melungeon.org. Participants may also register on site on any of the three days. The cost is $10 per person for any or all of the days of the event.

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