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Michelle Obama’s Ancestry Reveals Intriguing Slave Tale

Jeffrey Brown examines first lady Michelle Obama's ancestral path as the descendant of a slave.

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    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.


    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.