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From Slavery to the White House

Michelle Obama's roots go back to the pre-Civil War South: the five-generation journey of the First Lady's family

By Rachel L. Swarns & Jodi Kantor in Washington, D.C.


In 1850, David Patterson, the elderly owner of a South Carolina estate, wrote his will and painstakingly divided up his possessions. Among the spinning wheels, scythes, tablecloths, and cattle that he left to family members was a 6-year-old slave girl valued at $475.

She is described simply as the "negro girl Melvinia." After Patterson's death in 1852, she was torn away from the people and places she knew and shipped to Georgia. While she was a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time.

This painful story from the days of slavery would be unremarkable, except for one reason: Melvinia Shields, the illiterate young slave girl, and an unknown white man are the great-great-great-grandparents of First Lady Michelle Obama.

Mrs. Obama grew up with only a vague sense of her ancestry, say aides and relatives. But now a more complete map of her ancestors—including the slave mother Melvinia, the white father, and their biracial son, Dolphus Shields—fully connects the first black First Lady to the history of slavery.

While President Obama's biracial background has drawn attention, his wife's pedigree, which includes American Indian strands, highlights the nation's complicated history of racial intermingling, sometimes born of violence or coercion. That history is in the bloodlines of many African-Americans.

"She is representative of how we have evolved and who we are," says Edward Ball, a historian who discovered that he has black relatives, the descendants of his white slave-owning ancestors, when he researched his memoir, Slaves in the Family.

"We are not separate tribes of Latinos and whites and blacks in America," Ball says. "We've all mingled, and we have done so for generations."

The findings about the First Lady's family—uncovered by Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist, and The New York Times—substantiate what Mrs. Obama has called longstanding family rumors about a white ancestor.

Paper Trail

The outlines of Mrs. Obama's family history unfolded from a 19th-century will, yellowing marriage licenses, fading photographs, and the recollections of elderly women who remember the family.

Of the dozens of relatives she identified, Smolenyak says, it was the slave girl who seemed to call out most clearly.

"Out of all Michelle's roots, it's Melvinia who is screaming to be found," she says.

When her owner in South Carolina, David Patterson, died in 1852, Melvinia soon found herself on a 200-acre farm in Georgia with new masters—Patterson's daughter and son-in-law, Christianne and Henry Shields.

It was a strange and unfamiliar world. In South Carolina, she had lived on an estate with 21 slaves. In Georgia, she was one of only three slaves on property that is now part of a subdivision in the town of Rex, near Atlanta.

Whether Melvinia labored in the house or in the fields, there couldn't have been any shortage of work: wheat, corn, sweet potatoes, and cotton to plant and harvest, and 3 horses, 5 cows, 17 pigs, and 20 sheep to care for, according to an 1860 agricultural survey.

Melvinia gave birth to Dolphus around 1859, two years before the start of the Civil War, when she was as young as 15. It's difficult to determine who the father was. At the time, Henry Shields was in his late 40s and had four sons ages 19 to 24, but there may have been other men on the farm as well.

It was common for slave masters and their male relatives to father children with slave women and girls. While some of this intermingling was consensual, "far more was coerced—a reflection or a result of a profound imbalance of power," says Henry Louis Gates, a professor of African-American history at Harvard University. Gates says that 58 percent of African-Americans have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry.

In 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War, three of Melvinia's four children, including her son Dolphus, were listed on the United States census as mulatto (having one white parent and one black parent). Melvinia gave her children the Shields name, which may have hinted at their paternity or simply been the result of the custom of former slaves taking their master's surnames.

After she was freed, Melvinia stayed in the same part of Georgia, working as a farm laborer. But sometime in her 30s or 40s, census records show, Melvinia reunited with former slaves from her childhood on the Patterson estate in South Carolina: Mariah and Bolus Easley, who settled with Melvinia in Bartow County, Georgia, near the Alabama border. Her son Dolphus married one of the Easleys' daughters, Alice, who is Mrs. Obama's great-great-grandmother.

A community "that had been ripped apart was somehow pulling itself back together," Smolenyak says.

Parents Unknown?

Still, Melvinia seems to have lived with the unresolved legacy of her childhood in slavery until she died in 1938. Her death certificate, signed by a relative, says "don't know" in the space for the names of her parents, suggesting that Melvinia, then in her 90s, may never have known herself.

Sometime before 1888, when Dolphus was in his 30s, he and Alice Shields headed to Birmingham, Alabama, a boomtown with an iron and steel industry that attracted former slaves and their children from across the South. Dolphus Shields was a carpenter who could read, write, and advance in an industrializing town. He was also very light skinned; some say he looked like a white man. By 1900, he owned his own home, census records show. By 1911, he had opened his own carpentry and tool-sharpening business.

A co-founder of First Ebenezer Baptist Church and Trinity Baptist Church, which later became active in the civil rights movement, Shields supervised Sunday schools at both churches, which still exist today. "He was the dean of the deacons in Birmingham," says Helen Heath, 88, who attended church with him. As for his ancestry, Dolphus Shields didn't talk about it.

"We got to the place where we didn't want anybody to know we knew slaves; people didn't want to talk about that," says Heath, who says she assumed Shields had white relatives because of his skin color and hair texture. Shields carried his family into the working class, moving into a segregated neighborhood of striving black homeowners and renters. In his home, there was no smoking, no cursing, no gum chewing, no lipstick or trousers for women, and absolutely no blues on the radio.

At a time when whites barred blacks from voting, from most city jobs, from whites-only restaurants, and from owning property in white neighborhoods, Dolphus Shields served as a rare link between the divided communities.

His carpentry shop was in the white section of town, and he mixed easily and often with whites. "They would come to his shop and sit and talk," says Bobbie Holt, 73, who was raised by Shields and his fourth wife, Lucy. Dolphus Shields firmly believed race relations would improve. Holt recalls that he often said, "It's going to come together one day."

Dolphus and Alice eventually split up. Alice moved around after that, working as a seamstress and a maid. Their son, Robert Lee Shields (Mrs. Obama's great-grandfather), married Annie Lawson in 1906 and worked as a laborer and a railroad porter. But he disappeared from the public record sometime around his 32nd birthday.

By the time Dolphus died in 1950 at age 91, change was on the way. On June 9, 1950, the day that his obituary appeared on the front page of The Birmingham World, the black newspaper also ran a banner headline that read, "U.S. Court Bans Segregation in Diners and Higher Education." Four years before its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed segregated schools, the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in dining cars on interstate trains, and at state universities in Texas and Oklahoma.

'We've Come A Long Way'

Up North, Dolphus's grandson, a house painter named Purnell Shields (Mrs. Obama's grandfather) was positioning his family to seize widening opportunities in Chicago. He married Rebecca Jumper, a nurse at Chicago's Grant Hospital. They had seven children, including Marian Shields, Mrs. Obama's mother. In 1960, Marian married Fraser Robinson, who worked as a pump operator for the Chicago Water Department. Marian stayed home to raise their two children, Craig and Michelle.

But as the descendants of Dolphus Shields moved forward, they lost touch with the past. Today, Dolphus lies in a neglected black cemetery in Birmingham, where patches of grass grow knee-high and many tombstones have toppled.

Holt, a retired nursing assistant, was astounded when she learned that Shields was a great-great-grandfather of the First Lady.

"I always looked up to him," she says, "but I would never have imagined something like this. Praise God, we've come a long way."


(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, February 8, 2010)