In addition to serving as director of ETSU’s public radio station, Wayne Winkler is the author of two books, his first, Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia and Beyond the Sunset: The Melungeon Outdoor Drama, 1969-1976. Both books are published by Mercer University Press. Fifty years ago, residents of an impoverished county in East Tennessee staged an outdoor drama. They had no experience in any aspect of show business, their county was in a remote mountainous area far from major highways, and many of their fellow citizens objected to the subject of the play. But the show went on anyway. “This is the story of a community that wouldn’t give up,” says Winkler. “It seemed like they had nothing going for them; everyone they turned to for help thought they were a lost cause. But they pulled together, used what they had available to them, and tried to make things better.”
The play about Melungeons written about by Winkler in Walking Toward the Sunset, was controversial in Hancock County. Some county residents didn’t want to call attention to the presence of this mixed-race community. A bomb threat kept volunteers up all night guarding the newly built amphitheater before the play opened. And only a few residents believed that paying customers would make the journey over narrow, twisting mountain roads to the amphitheater in Sneedville, the county seat. In Beyond the Sunset, Winkler uses contemporary press reports, long-forgotten documents, and interviews with participants to chronicle the struggles of an impoverished rural Appalachian county to maintain its viability in the modern world – and the unexpected consequences of that effort.