BIG STONE GAP, Va. - Wayne Winkler discovered he was a Melungeon at 12 years old. His grandmother is a Melungeon. His father is, too.
"I had never heard the word, so I asked my relatives what a Melungeon is. I asked what it was, and I've spent all this time since then trying to answer the question," Winkler says.
For Winkler and others of mixed-ethnic groups, attending the 18th annual Melungeon Union on Saturday was a way to get some answers.
Melungeon's were first documented in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee in the 19th century. "They are basically a mixed-ethnic group of a combination of Native American, European American and African American," Winkler says.
Researchers have attempted to document the meaning of Melungeon identity for years. Lisa Alther, an author, wrote books exploring the history. "I always heard growing up that we were Anglo-Saxon and Celtic here in the mountains, so the most fascinating thing for me is realizing that we are here in the mountains really a melting pot of the entire world," Alther says.
Members of the Melungeon Heritage Association listened to speakers and took notes, hoping to learn about their backgrounds.
Arwin Smallwood, a speaker, started researching the topic after looking at his own family. "Growing up with people that are obviously mixed, green eyes, blue eyes, grey eyes, red and auburn hair, clearly various shades of color from very fair to very dark. So I was just very curious about my own family," Smallwood says.
Winkler says people don't know what a Melungeon really is. "I remember telling someone I was a Melungeon, and they reacted like I was kind of a leprechaun," he says.
But Smallwood wants people to know that Melungeons are part of what made America. "It's not strictly one group. You know, a European or a European immigrant group, but all of these cultures came together and they were blended," he says.
The Melungeon Heritage Association says thousands of people have discovered family connections to the Melungeon's through genealogical research.