Fraser Robinson III and his wife, Marian, with their children, Craig and Michelle, now the first lady
In 1850, the elderly master of a South Carolina estate took pen in hand and painstakingly divided up his possessions. Among the spinning wheels, scythes, tablecloths and cattle that he bequeathed to his far-flung heirs was a 6-year-old slave girl valued soon afterward at $475.
In his will, she is described simply as the “negro girl Melvinia.” After his death, she was torn away from the people and places she knew and shipped to Georgia. While she was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time.
In the annals of American slavery, this painful story would be utterly unremarkable, save for one reason: This union, consummated some two years before the Civil War, marked the origins of a family line that would extend from rural Georgia, to Birmingham, Ala., to Chicago and, finally, to the White House. Melvinia Shields, the enslaved and illiterate young girl, and the unknown white man who impregnated her are the great-great-great-grandparents of Michelle Obama, the first lady.
The newly discovered story of Mrs. Obama’s maternal ancestors — the slave mother, white father and their biracial son, Dolphus T. Shields — for the first time fully connects the first African-American first lady to the history of slavery, tracing their five-generation journey from bondage to a front-row seat to the presidency. The findings — uncovered by Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist, and The New York Times — substantiate what Mrs. Obama has called longstanding family rumors about a white forbear.
While President Obama’s biracial background has drawn considerable attention, his wife’s pedigree, which includes American Indian strands, highlights the complicated history of racial intermingling, sometimes born of violence or coercion, that lingers in the bloodlines of many African-Americans.
“She is representative of how we have evolved and who we are,” said Edward Ball, a historian who discovered that he had black relatives — the descendants of his white slave-owning ancestors — when he researched his memoir, “Slaves in the Family.” [call number 975.7915 B ]
“We are not separate tribes of Latinos and whites and blacks in America,” Mr. Ball said. “We’ve all mingled, and we have done so for generations.”
The outlines of Mrs. Obama’s family history unfolded from 19th century probate records, yellowing marriage licenses, fading photographs and the recollections of elderly women who remember the family. Of the dozens of relatives she identified, Ms. Smolenyak said, it was the slave girl who seemed to call out most clearly.
Whether Melvinia labored in the house or in the fields, there was no 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.
In 1870, three of Melvinia’s four children, including Dolphus, were listed on the census as mulatto. One was born four years after emancipation, suggesting that the liaison that produced those children endured after slavery. She gave her children the Shields name, which may have hinted at their paternity or simply been the custom of former slaves taking their master’s surnames.