Warren Wilson to discuss the Melungeon history, mystery

Paul Clark

The people at the heart of one of Appalachia's most enduring legends will be the topic of a conference this weekend at Warren Wilson College. The Melungeon Heritage Association will hold its 19th annual meeting there on 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."

Genealogists have traced many of the families, DNA studies have offered some tantalizing hints, but the story of the Melungeons remains – to use the term most often employed by journalists over the years – "mysterious."

"They've always been considered to be of uncertain origin," said Wayne Winkler, a presenter at the gathering who worksin Johnson City, Tennessee. Melungeons have often been thought of as being of European, Native American and African American heritage, but no one really knows, he said. Many Melungeons say their people came from Portugal. Turkish, Slavic, Roma and Jewish heritage has also said to be in their blood.

Regardless, with their darker complexions, they stood out from the Scotch-Irish people who settled in the Clinch River basin of the Appalachian Mountains, said Winkler, who is himself of Melungeon ancestry. Any suspicion of black blood in the 1800s was enough to result in discrimination, of which the Melungeons experienced much. Until the mid 1900s, their children were forced to attend separate schools, as were Winkler's uncles.

There is no Melungeon "look," Winkler said. They come in all shapes and sizes, and because they have married outside of the region, the common family names of Gibson, Collins and others aren't as common now, he said.

But interest in the culture, both from within and from without it, remains high. Organizers of the gathering at Warren Wilson College are expecting from 75-150 people, Winkler said. Attendees don't have to have to be of Melungeon origin. In fact, many people have come to previous gatherings to see if they share the ancestry.

Warren Wilson College and the Melungeon people have close ties, Winkler said. A Presbyterian mission school set up more than a century ago in Hancock County, Tennessee sent young graduates to Warren Wilson College to further their education. That went on for decades, Winkler said.

All presentations at the Warren Wilson gathering will be made in the Canon Lounge in the Gladfelter Student Center.

Check in and registration begin at 11 a.m. on Friday and 8 a.m. on Saturday.

The cost is $10 for one day or $15 for both days.