From Slavery to the White House: Michelle Obama's Roots Go Back to the Pre-Civil War South: The Five-Generation Journey of the First Lady's Family

By Swarns, Rachel L.; Kantor, Jodi | New York Times Upfront, February 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

From Slavery to the White House: Michelle Obama's Roots Go Back to the Pre-Civil War South: The Five-Generation Journey of the First Lady's Family


Swarns, Rachel L., Kantor, Jodi, New York Times Upfront


In 1850, David Patterson, the elderly owner of a South Carolina estate, wrote his will and painstakingly divided up his possessions. Among the spinning wheels, scythes, tablecloths, and cattle that he left to family members was a 6-year-old slave girl valued at $475.

She is described simply as the "negro girl Melvinia." After Patterson's death in 1852, she was tom away from the people and places she knew and shipped to Georgia. While she was a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time.

This painful story from the days of slavery would be unremarkable, except for one reason: Melvinia Shields, the illiterate young slave girl, and an unknown white man are the great-great-great-grandparents of First Lady Michelle Obama.

Mrs. Obama grew up with only a vague sense of her ancestry, say aides and relatives. But now a more complete map of her ancestors--including the slave mother Melvinia, the white father, and their biracial son, Dolphus Shields--fully connects the first black First Lady to the history of slavery.

While President Obama's biracial background has drawn attention, his wife's pedigree, which includes American Indian strands, highlights the nation's complicated history of racial intermingling, sometimes born of violence or coercion. That history is in the bloodlines of many African-Americans.

"She is representative of how we have evolved and who we are," says Edward Ball, a historian who discovered that he has black relatives, the descendants of his white slave-owning ancestors, when he researched his memoir, Slaves in the Family.

"We are not separate tribes of Latinos and whites and blacks in America," Ball says. "We've all mingled, and we have done so for generations."

The findings about the First Lady's family--uncovered by Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist, and The New York Times--substantiate what Mrs. Obama has called longstanding family rumors about a white ancestor.

PAPER TRAIL

The outlines of Mrs. Obama's family history unfolded from a 19th-century will, yellowing marriage licenses, fading photographs, and the recollections of elderly women who remember the family.

Of the dozens of relatives she identified, Smolenyak says, it was the slave girl who seemed to call out most clearly.

"Out of all Michelle's roots, it's Melvinia who is screaming to be found," she says.

When her owner in South Carolina, David Patterson, died in 1852, Melvinia soon found herself on a 200acre farm in Georgia with new masters--Patterson's daughter and son-in-law, Christianne and Henry Shields.

It was a strange and unfamiliar world. In South Carolina, she had lived on an estate with 21 slaves. In Georgia, she was one of only three slaves on property that is now part of a subdivision in the town of Rex, near Atlanta.

Whether Melvinia labored in the house or in the fields, there couldn't have been any shortage of work: wheat, corn, sweet potatoes, and cotton to plant and harvest, and 3 horses, 5 cows, 17 pigs, and 20 sheep to care for, according to an 1860 agricultural survey.

Melvinia gave birth to Dolphus around 1859, two years before the start of the Civil War, when she was as young as 15. It's difficult to determine who the father was. At the time, Henry Shields was in his late 40s and had four sons ages 19 to 24, but there may have been other men on the farm as well.

It was common for slave masters and their male relatives to father children with slave women and girls. While some of this intermingling was consensual, "far more was coerced--a reflection or a result of a profound imbalance of power," says Henry Louis Gates, a professor of African-American history at Harvard University. Gates says that 58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry.

In 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War, three of Melvinia's four children, including her son Dolphus, were listed on the United States census as mulatto (having one white parent and one black parent). …

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