Genealogist unearths first lady’s family tree back to 1850
The White House said first lady Michelle Obama had not known many of the details of her family history and enjoyed reading it. She had declined to comment on the story for The New York Times because of the personal nature of the subject.
The slave girl Melvinia initially appears in the documentary record in 1850, the property of South Carolina landowner David Patterson, who owned 21 slaves.
After Patterson died in 1852, Melvinia was sent to a smaller 200-acre farm in Georgia, the home of Patterson’s daughter and son-in-law, Christianne and Henry Shields. She was one of only three slaves on the farm near Atlanta.
Sometime when she was a teenager, possibly as young as 15, Melvinia became pregnant by a white male. The father is unknown, possibly Henry Shields, then in his 40s, or one of his four sons, aged 19 to 24.
Melvinia gave birth around 1859 to a boy, Dolphus. She and the father of her first-born son are Michelle Obama’s great-great-great-grandparents, genealogist Megan Smolenyak says.
Three of Melvinia’s four children are listed on the 1870 census as mulatto. One was born four years after emancipation, raising the possibility that the relationship with the original father continued even after the Civil War.
After being freed, she worked on a farm adjacent to that of Charles Shields, one of Henry Shields’ sons.
In her 30s or 40s, Melvinia reconnected with former slaves she had known as a child on the Patterson estate. She moved with the couple — Mariah and Bolus Easley — to a spot near the border with Alabama.
Dolphus married one of the Easleys’ daughters, Alice. The couple are Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandparents.
Melvinia, who took Shields as her last name, died in 1938 in her 90s.
Dolphus and Alice moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where he was a co-founder of First Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Trinity Baptist Church.
Dolphus, a carpenter, thrived in Birmingham, but he split up with Alice. She moved around, working as a seamstress and a maid.
Their son, Robert Lee Shields, married Annie Lawson in 1906 and worked as a laborer and railroad porter. Robert Lee disappeared from the public record when he was about 32 years old.
He was Michelle Obama’s great-grandfather.
Robert Lee’s son, Purnell Shields, was the first lady’s grandfather, her mother Marian Robinson’s father. He moved to Chicago as part of the great migration north and worked as a painter.
Photo credit:Reuters/Larry Downing (Obama family, including Michelle Obama’s mother Marian Robinson, on White House balcony April 13.)