“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,”
Michelle Obama’s roots is traced back to a six-year-old slave girl who was bequeathed to her owner’s heirs along with his household possessions and cattle.
The child, described in the will of David Patterson simply as “the negro girl Melvinia”, was uprooted from her plantation home in South Carolina and shipped to the US state of Georgia in 1852.
There, while still a teenager, she gave birth to the son of a white man – a union of dubious status that would have been looked down upon at the time but one which produced the First Lady’s maternal great-great-grandfather.
The wife of President Barack Obama grew up with only a vague awareness of her ancestry, but a paternal great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, who was also a slave, was identified during the presidential election campaign.
The five-generation journey from a plantation to the White House, unveiled by Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist working with The New York Times, for the first time draws a direct line on the First Lady’s family tree to America’s history of slavery.
The First Lady is hailed by many as a symbol of the advancement of black Americans, and Mrs Obama’s genealogy is far more relevant to most African-Americans than that of her husband, the son of a white American mother and a black father from Kenya.
In July of 2009, Mr Obama and his family visited a slave outpost in Ghana, an emotive tour that the President said would help his daughters understand their obligation to fight oppression and cruelty.
Drawing on records including marriage licences, photographs and interviews, Miss Smolenyak was able to clearly outline Mrs Obama’s roots.
Like many child slaves, Melvinia may never have known her parents. When she died in 1938, her death certificate had “don’t know” in the space for her parents’ names.
Upon Mr Patterson’s death, her ownership was transferred to Christianne and Henry Shields, Mr Patterson’s daughter and son-in-law, who lived on a farm near Atlanta.
There, the little girl worked in both the house and the fields, where the family grew wheat, sweet potatoes and cotton, as well as cows, pigs and sheep, according to an 1860 agricultural survey.
Miss Smolenyak was unable to identify the father of Melvinia’s child. Mr Shields was in his 40s at the time and had four grown sons. However, rape and sexual exploitation of slaves were everyday occurrences in the American South. Melvinia gave birth to a son, Dolphus, in 1859, when she was probably 15 years old.Eleven years later, three of her four children, including Dolphus, were mentioned in a census as “mulatto”, or mixed race. One was born four years after emancipation, which suggested to researchers that the parents’ relationship survived the abolition of slavery.
According to records, Melvinia stayed where she was after being freed, working as a farm labourer on land next to that of Charles Shields, one of Henry’s sons. Her son, known as Dolphus Shields, married Alice Easley, Mrs Obama’s great-great-grandmother.
Dolphus and Alice moved to the boom town of Birmingham, Alabama. Dolphus was reportedly so light-skinned that some mistook him for white. By the time he died aged 91, in 1950, one of his grandsons, Purnell, had become a painter, and went to become Mrs Obama’s grandfather.
Mrs Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, nee Shields, was from Chicago, where she raised her two children, Michelle and Craig. She worked as a bank secretary, but retired to care for her granddaughters. She now lives in the White House.
Mrs Obama and her family declined to talk to the genealogy researchers. Aides said one of the reasons was that the subject matter was too personal, but the discovery of a white forebear is understood to have confirmed a long-standing family rumour.