Michelle Obama’s Ancestry Reveals Intriguing Slave Tale

October 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown examines first lady Michelle Obama's ancestral path as the descendant of a slave.

JEFFREY BROWN: A fascinating look into the ancestry of Michelle Obama is detailed in a New York Times story today, “First Lady’s Roots Reveal Slavery’s Tangled Legacy.”

Mrs. Obama’s family history is traced back to the 1850 will of the owner of a South Carolina estate, which contains a reference to a young slave described as the — quote — “Negro girl Melvinia.” Valued at $475, Melvinia was later sent to a farm in Georgia. There, as a teen, she gave birth to a son, Dolphus Shields, fathered by an unknown white man. Dolphus Shields would later move to Birmingham, Alabama, where he opened his own business and lived in this home. It was Dolphus’s daughter-in-law, Annie Lawson, who first moved to Chicago, as documented in this 1930 census. Two generations later, Marian Shields would marry Fraser Robinson III, and give birth to the future first lady.

And two of the people who pulled this tale together join us now: Megan Smolenyak, who tracks and traces family trees as a professional genealogist, and New York Times, Washington correspondent Rachel Swarns. Rachel, why — why did this story come about? Why the interest from The Times?

RACHEL SWARNS, “The New York Times”: Well, back in January, one of my colleagues, Jodi Kantor, started some work on a piece about the Obama family, and asked Megan to do a little work on Mrs. Own’s line. Megan, the genealogist, did some work. The story ran. And, unbeknownst to us, she got intrigued and spent months and months digging and digging, and, in September, called and said, you won’t believe what I found. And that’s how we got started again.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, Megan, I assume you worked your way backwards. Tell us how it worked in this case.

MEGAN SMOLENYAK, genealogist: You’re exactly right. You start with yourself and you work backwards. So, I started with Michelle and what’s generally known about her, her parents and so forth. And I went back methodically, generation by generation, actually in all the branches of her family tree.

Finding Melvinia

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in today's -- in today's story, you're quoted as saying, out of all Michelle's roots, it's Melvinia who was screaming to be found. And that's as far as you got back, to that 1850 will and that -- that note about her value, placed a value on her at $475. Tell us about getting back to her.

MEGAN SMOLENYAK: Well, I just worked my way back through the census records every 10 years or so. When you're doing African-American research, you tend to hit we call it the wall of 1870. That's the last document -- or, actually, the first document where most African-Americans are going to find ancestors listed, finally, complete names, all that information. Before that, sad to say, you have to go digging through property records. You have to identify who the owners of your ancestors were and look through their property records. And that is how I ultimately found Melvinia. I found her initially as an adult in Georgia. But I knew that she was born in South Carolina. So, I had to try to pick up the paper trail in South Carolina. And I did that through estate records that listed her as property.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much is known about her, though, and -- and particularly the circumstances of bearing the child to a white man? His identity is not known, correct?

MEGAN SMOLENYAK: That's correct. We know that she was living in close proximity to the Shields family, which had once owned her. So, that is an educated guess, but it is just that, a guess. But all we know for sure is that the father of at least some of her children was a white man.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rachel, in the story, you write that in the 1870 census, three of her children were listed as mulatto.

RACHEL SWARNS: That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, there's some -- at that point, something was known about the -- about the -- about the intermingling.

RACHEL SWARNS: Exactly. That's right. So, in 1870, Melvinia is living -- she's a free woman. She's living alongside, right next door to the son of one of her owners, which leads to some speculation, too. She didn't go very far after the Civil War. She gave her children the Shields name, which might suggest something of paternity, but it also might just be kind of the custom that slaves took after the Civil War. So, there are still a lot of questions here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Much more is known about her son, Dolphus, right, who moved to Birmingham, as we said. You went to Birmingham. There, you're getting -- you're able to talk to people who knew the family.

RACHEL SWARNS: Yes, we flew to Birmingham with bits and pieces of information. We knew that he had founded a couple of churches. Well, we knew he had founded one. We knew that -- we knew where he was buried. We knew the church that he was buried in. And then we just kind of went digging. And I was lucky enough to find two older ladies who remembered the family, as well as documents in the archives of the library that produced those photographs of his home and gave us some insight into what his life was like.

Michelle Obama's "great migration"

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Megan, I know you do a lot of this. And I guess we have all learned a lot about how this works in recent decades. The -- the complicated history here of -- of -- of the lives of slaves and masters, is this a -- is this an uncommon story? I mean, this particular one, how does it strike you?

MEGAN SMOLENYAK: To tell you the truth, one of the things that appealed to me is how universal this story is. Michelle's story is the Great Migration. It is the story of the South. Except for Florida, Arkansas, and Texas, pretty much every Southern state could claim a piece of her past. And, in terms of what happened with Melvinia, that is also very commonplace. So, that was one of the appeals, is that it was such a universal story. I suspect it's resonating with a lot of people for that reason.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add to that, Rachel?

RACHEL SWARNS: I think, you know, there's a lot of focus on her husband's background, the president, who is biracial. I think what this story shows us is how this kind of intermingling in and the bloodlines of African-Americans had been going on for generations, and lingers still, even though we aren't always keenly aware of it. In her family, like in many families, there were stories of an African -- of a white ancestor. And what we were able to do here was to find that link.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it's interesting. I mean, there were stories, you say, in their family. There were rumors, is the way you put in -- in your story today. How much did she know, she or her family know? Did they talk to you? Were you able to talk to them, get their cooperation in this?

RACHEL SWARNS: Well -- well, we know from her aides that she did not know these details. But we don't -- we didn't get to sit down and talk to the first lady or her mother. We had hoped to do that. They said it was a very personal story, and so they declined to do so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Megan, there was -- in the story today, it -- it refers to a 1938 death certificate for Melvinia, who -- it was signed by a relative, is the way you put it. It says "Don't know" in the space for the names of her parents. So, this is getting...


JEFFREY BROWN: ... back to a place where we never know some things?

MEGAN SMOLENYAK: Most likely. Never say never. You can always keep digging. But that's the most likely outcome, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you -- do you keep digging beyond this? Or is this the end of this story, Rachel?

RACHEL SWARNS: Well, we have an interactive component of this story on our Web site, in which we're asking readers to tell us what they know. Tell us if they're part of this family. Tell us if they have known members of this family, and to give us their photographs and their thoughts and recollections. So, we're hoping to find more. JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Rachel Swarns and Megan Smolenyak, thank you both very much.