Tracing Michelle Obama's Ancestry
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
First Lady Michelle Obama often talks about her unlikely path from a working-class upbringing on Chicago's South Side to the White House. A story on the front page of today's New York Times sheds light on just how remarkable her family's journey has been.
Two Times reporters and a genealogist have traced Michelle Obama's roots back five generations to her great-great-great grandmother. She was a slave girl who lived on a South Carolina farm. Her name was Melvinia. She's listed on her owner's will, along with livestock and various housewares, as a six-year-old negro girl valued at $475.
I asked New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns to walk us along that path from that South Carolina farm all the way to the White House.
Ms. RACHEL SWARNS (Reporter, The New York Times): So, you have Melvinia, who was shipped from South Carolina to Georgia, some time when she was probably around eight years old. She has a child with a white man whose name and identity we don't know. And that child, who is listed in the census in 1870 as mulatto, is Dolphus Shields. That's Mrs. Obama's great-great grandfather.
Dolphus Shields moves to Birmingham and he marries Alice Easley. They have a son whose name is Robert Lee Shields. And we don't know a lot about Robert Lee Shields. He disappears from the public record around his 32nd birthday. But he had a son whose name was Pernell Shields. And Pernell Shields and Pernell's mother moved to Chicago, and that's what brought the family to Chicago. Pernell had a daughter named Marian Robinson, who is Michelle Obama's mother.
NORRIS: And Marian Robinson now lives...
Ms. SWARNS: In the White House.
NORRIS: In the White House with the Obama family.
Ms. SWARNS: That's right.
NORRIS: You were able to unearth incredible detail about Dolphus Shields, Michelle Obama's great-great grandfather. You described how he would give candy to children in the neighborhood. He wouldn't allow people to listen to blues music in his home. Women were not allowed to wear trousers in his home. How were you able to find such incredible details about his life?
Ms. SWARNS: Well, when I flew down to Birmingham, my main goal was to try and find people, if I could, who knew him, who were still alive. And I was able to find the daughter of the minister who presided at his funeral. And she also knew a woman in her 70s who was raised by Dolphus Shields. And that woman was the one who told me about this very serious churchgoing man who had a lot of rules, but told great stories and had the neighborhood children running around grabbing after peppermints.
NORRIS: Described as the dean of the deacons.
Ms. SWARNS: The dean of the deacons in Birmingham. He co-founded a number of churches there. He was one of the founders of Trinity Baptist Church, a founder of First Ebenezer Baptist Church and then at the end of his life joined Regular Missionary Baptist Church. He was very, very well-known. And the woman who was raised by him said she often marveled, wherever they went everyone knew Mr. Shields, Mr. Shields.
NORRIS: This is a remarkable story because it involves the first lady. But it is - actually was quite common, this kind of racial intermingling during times of slavery. There's a companion piece on the Web site authored by Henry Louis Gates, which notes that 30 percent of African-American men can trace their family history back to a white man who probably had relations with a black woman in times of slavery.
Ms. SWARNS: That's right. So, in many ways this is a very, very familiar, a very, very American story. And for...
NORRIS: But not talked about so much.
Ms. SWARNS: But not talked about so much among that first generation, second generation out of slavery. One of the women that I talked to who knew Mrs. Obama's great-great grandfather said that people just didn't want to talk about slavery. People were ashamed of it. She said, you know, we had to learn that that was important and that mattered. And so there are a lot of complicated reasons why.
But in many ways, for a lot of African-American families, this kind of story, you know, is very resonant because many people have this kind of story in their family.
NORRIS: Rachel Swarns is a reporter for The New York Times. Rachel, thank you very much for coming in to talk to us.
Ms. SWARNS: Thank you.
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