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Melungeon history explored: Melungeon Heritage Association Union to gather this weekend in Martinsville

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An event by the Melungeon Heritage Association this week will feature an author signing event on Friday at 2 p.m. at the Parish House as well as a series of lectures that will be held on Saturday, starting at 10 a.m., at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

“The beginnings of the Melungeon people, and other mixed ancestries people, is in the 1600s, 1700s with those early intersections between Europeans, Africans and Native Americans,” Melungeon Heritage Association President Heather Andolina said. “It is certainly a lesser known history in America, and I think some of it is because they were non-white people.”

The Melungeon people originated through the very beginnings of colonization in America, writer Darlene Nixon said. The mixture of European, African and indigenous people began to face discrimination and self-isolated to shield themselves from threats.

“Many of these communities were located in very isolated places, for example, Appalachian mountains, Andolina added. “I think that’s also why they’re not as well known, because these communities really kept to themselves.”

Andolina said that one of the ways to know whether someone is of Melungeon ancestry is by surnames. “You can see where these groups of peoples, through their surnames, migrated and they kept migrating through Virginia, North Carolina, even from South Carolina eventually into the Appalachia region, she added.

Melungeon peoples’ characteristics varied because of their mixed descent, Nixon said, ranging from dark to blonde hair, lighter to darker skin and a wide variety of eye colors. Many people don’t find out that they have Melungeon ancestry until adulthood, she said.

The term “Melungeon” is said to come from the French word for “mixed,” which is “mélange.” The term is loosely associated with Appalachia, Andolina, “Southeastern Kentucky, northeastern Tennessee, parts of North Carolina and of course parts of western Virginia,” she said.

The Melungeon Heritage Association is a “non-profit organization that documents and preserves the history and cultural legacy of mixed ancestry peoples of the southern and eastern United States,” Andolina said. “Our organization does mostly focus on the Melungeon people, but we do expand out to other peoples of mixed ancestries in the southeast because the Melungeon people are tied … to other mixed ancestries” like the Lumbees, the Red Bones and the Brass Ankles.

The main goal of the event in Martinsville is to “bring people together who have this unique ancestry, whether it is Melungeon or just mixed ancestry in general … We bring in authors, historians, researchers, people who … make it educational,” Andolina said.

Nixon is one of the authors who will be at the author event at the Parish House on Friday. Her book is called “Our Side of the Mountain: A Pocahontas to Melungeon Revolution” and it tells the story of what her mother remembers about growing up Melungeon.

Writing has always been her passion, Nixon said, and through conversation with her mother and grandmother she was able to put together a fascinating story recounting their stories following day-to-day life as her mother remembers it.

Some of the cultural distinction of Melungeons are living off of the land, being superstitious, not bathing every day but washing their feet every night and the way and reasons that they kept animals, she said.

Nixon added that the cultural habits that she listed will vary depending on who is asked, probably having similarities but differences deepening on the region they are discussing.

“The idea is to tell a little bit of a story about these people that are coming to Martinsville and why you might want to go and learn a little bit more about it,” Nixon said. “We want to benefit our authors and shine a light on the Melungeon heritage … That we exist and that we are proud people of our culture and heritage.”

Monique Holland is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at monique.holland@martinsvillebulletin.com or at 276-734-9603.

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