Michelle Obama's Roots From Slavery to the White House

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

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.

From Slavery to the White House

Shields grew up a free man and moved to Birmingham, Ala., where he became a carpenter. In 1900, he owned a home and, by 1911, had his own business, establishing himself firmly in the middle class.

"You get the sense, through these documents, he was pulling himself up step by step, into economic stability, which was amazing, considering he was born a slave," Kantor said.

Bobbie Holt, his informally adopted daughter, described Shields as a kind, extremely devote Christian. He and his wife took her in as a sick child, when she was just 2 years old. Holt said Shields never spoke about his past and whether he may have been mixed race, but said he could easily pass for a white man.

"He was very light-skinned, beautiful hair, very fair skinned," Holt told ABC News. "You could almost mistake him for being white."

One of Shields' sons, Robert Lee, married a seamstress named Annie. They had a son named Purnell, who would move to Chicago, where he worked as a painter. Purnell and his wife had several children, including a daughter named Marion.

It was Marion who married a man named Fraser Robinson and have two children, including a daughter, Michelle.

It was this family that went from the slavery of the South to the halls of the White House in an amazing, unique American journey.

"She [the first lady] has said that there were always these rumors in her family about a white ancestor somewhere, and many African-American families have these kinds of stories, but it's still quite difficult to go this far back," Swarns said. "It's a very familiar story, but it's a very American story."

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