Michelle Obama's Roots From Slavery to the White House

New research traces first lady's roots back to 19th-century slaves.

ByABC News
October 8, 2009, 7:40 AM

Oct. 8, 2009— -- President Obama's life and journey to the presidency have captured many headlines, but new details about the ancestry of his wife, Michelle Obama, reveal a remarkable five-generation journey from slavery to the White House.

Working with genealogist Megan Smolenyak, the findings were researched and published by The New York Times Wednesday.

It began more than a century ago, on a 200-acre farm in South Carolina. In 1850, 6-year-old Melvinia -- Michelle Obama's maternal great-great-great grandmother -- was left in a slaveholder's will as part of his property left to relatives.

In the will, her master declared that his descendents would inherit the "use and service of Melvinia."

"She was treated like a piece of property in a will, and when she was only 8 years old, she was sent across the South," said Jodi Kantor, who co-wrote The New York Times story.

Melvinia, valued at $475, lived an unimaginable life of labor and slavery, working in the house and on a farm that grew wheat, cotton and corn. Not able to read, write or defend herself, she was valued for trading and was subjected to exhausting chores at the command of her owners.

"She was one of three slaves there," said New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns, who co-authored the story. "It was a very small farm. It wasn't the kind of notion of the plantation that we have."

The Times reported that Melvinia was moved to a new farm in Georgia. As a teenager, she met a white man who fathered her first child, a son named Dolphus Shields, the first lady's great-great-grandfather.

The child is listed in the 1870 census as a mulatto, a term used to describe a person of mixed race.

"Many, many families have stories like Mrs. Obama did about white ancestors back generations," Swarns said.