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The First Lady’s Roots

Up from Slavery


Thursday, September 13, 2012

NO PROMISED LAND: When Michelle Obama’s kin arrived in Chicago a century ago after fleeing the oppressive Jim Crow South, it seemed like the Promised Land. But all too soon, it became a northern version of segregation, bias, and violence.

(The South Side Chicago I grew up in years later, and where Michelle’s family took root, was a quilt of ethnic and racial neighborhoods where it was often risky to cross unmarked but real boundaries.)

It was not until Michelle became First Lady that she learned that among her great-great-great-grandparents were a teenage slave girl named Melvinia and, apparently, the white son of the man who owned a large Georgia farm and her, according to a book that came out this year tracing Michelle’s family saga, American Tapestry (Amistad/HarperCollins, 392 pp.).

It was a rumor whispered about over the years on the black side of the family and a biracial truth unknown or at least unspoken on the white side. And when the truth came out, it was greeted with acceptance by some on the white side and denial by others, despite DNA proof.

Meanwhile, ironically, Michelle’s husband, President Barack Obama, is apparently a distant descendent on his white mother’s side from America’s first documented African slave, John Punch, according a recent report from Ancestry.com.

Probably when Melvinia was between 14 and 16 years old (between 1858 and 1860), she was impregnated by a white man, very likely Charles Marion Shields. Although the circumstances are unknown, rape of black women by men in their owners’ families was common, according to the book’s author, Rachel Swarns, a New York Times reporter.

When Charles’s latter-day white family learned of Melvinia and her son, Dolphus, via Swarns’s reporting in the Times in 2009, some imagined a scenario where she was loved and helped by his family. There’s little evidence in American Tapestry of anything but hardship and poverty for the girl. Light-skinned Dolphus Shields, however, became a carpenter and well-known deacon in Birmingham, Alabama.

These and others of Michelle’s Southern ancestors eventually joined one of the largest mass movements in the world, known as The Great Migration. Between 1910 and 1970, 6.5 million black people moved north. When Michelle’s 29-year-old paternal great-grandmother, Phoebe Moten Johnson, arrived in the Windy City in 1908, she found integrated schools and parks. Chicago was booming, and jobs were plentiful. Phoebe’s husband, James, found work as a Pullman porter, then considered quite a top-flight job. In 1918, Phoebe, a sharecropper’s daughter, found herself living in Hyde Park, a prestigious area near the University of Chicago.

But resentment about the pace of the migration soon exploded. Hyde Park homes were bombed. In 1919 Chicago suffered a deadly race riot. In four days, 38 people were killed, 23 of them black. Phoebe, James, and their 11 children, including LaVaughn, destined to be Michelle’s paternal grandmother, fled north to Evanston, a small, suburban college town. By 1930, Phoebe was back in Chicago, struggling during the Depression, her husband gone. A son was in college, but she had little ones to feed. She began scrubbing floors back in Hyde Park, brokenhearted.

In 1934, Phoebe’s churchgoing 19-year-old daughter, LaVaughn, wed Fraser Robinson Jr., a South Carolina man. Ten months after the wedding, Fraser Robinson III, Michelle’s father, was born. Times were hard, but he and his three siblings all attended college, one earning two master’s degrees. “In her long life, LaVaughn never talked about her own personal experiences in segregated Chicago, nor had she shared any details of her grandmother Mary [Moten]’s life during slavery or the origins of her family’s multiracial lineage,” author Swarns writes.

Meanwhile, Dolphus’s grandson, Purnell Shields, moved to Chicago from Birmingham and married a quiet woman named Rebecca Coleman. Their daughter, Marian, became a teacher, then a secretary. Fraser Robinson III, first-born of Fraser and LaVaughn, met Marian and fell hard.

Three years after they wed, on January 17, 1964, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born.

As a child, the future First Lady lived with her parents in a one-bedroom South Side apartment so small that her parents hung sheets to create a bedroom for Michelle and her brother, Craig. At school, she quickly became a brilliant student, going on to Princeton, and then earning a law degree at Harvard.

While Michelle Obama has “publicly embraced her mixed heritage,” according to Swarns, the subject is a sensitive point on the white side. “They are on the right side of history, and we are not,” one of Charles’s descendants told the author.

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