9    Jul 20121 comment

What is in Michelle Obama’s past? The eclectic, multi-racial ancestry of the First Lady

Rachel L. Swarns

Rachel L. Swarns © 2011 Scott Robinson

This is a guest post from Rachel L. Swarns, a correspondent who has written for the New York Times since 1995. Rachel has published a book called: “American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama” in which she describes the many multicolored strands that make up the first lady’s family tree. In this guest post Rachel shares with us some of her discoveries about Michelle Obama’s lineage.

When Michelle Obama first moved into the White House in 2009, people knew her as a Harvard-educated lawyer, a mother of two and the nation’s first African-American first lady. But very little was known about her family origins. No one – not even Mrs. Obama -- had any idea how fascinating her family story was.

Among her forbears were Irish Americans, who nurtured their dreams in a new land and fought for the Confederacy. There were slaves who toiled on vast rice plantations and picked cotton on smaller estates. There were mixed race people who lived free for decades before the Civil War. Some claimed Cherokee ancestry.

There are even tantalizing hints of a link to a Jewish family with ties to the Charleston, S.C. synagogue that became the birthplace of the American Jewish Reform Movement in the 19th century.

During the antebellum period, her ancestors lived all across the South, in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi. After the Civil War, I followed their footsteps as they migrated west to Alabama and West Virginia and north to Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere. They worked as farmers, sharecroppers, railroad porters, carpenters, cobblers, domestics and postal clerks. They were black, white and in-between.

Mrs. Obama had long suspected that she had white ancestors, but she had no idea who they were. It was a subject – like slavery – that was rarely spoken of in her family. Over and over again, older members of Mrs. Obama’s family said that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t talk about slavery, discrimination, or racial violence or about the provenance of the family’s white ancestry.

The family of First Lady Michelle Obama

The family of First Lady Michelle Obama. (Courtesy of Barack Obama campaign)

Mrs. Obama grew up within blocks of her four grandparents on the South Side of Chicago. But she and her brother grew up knowing little about how those grandparents ended up on the South Side and virtually nothing about the ancestors who came before them.

“We were aware that most [African American] families were at some point descended from slaves and we talked about that and kind of understood that was the case in our family,” said the First Lady’s brother. During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, his aides enlisted a historian to dig into Mrs. Obama’s father’s line, which also extends back to slavery. But Craig Robinson has said his family knew little beyond that. “We didn’t do the whole family tree,” he said. “Getting into the nitty-gritty of the genealogy, we didn’t do that.”

Nomenee Robinson, Mrs. Obama’s uncle, said that when he tried to dig, he found himself blocked by an impenetrable silence. “All of these elderly people in my family, they would say, ‘Boy, I don’t know anything about slavery time,’” Mrs. Obama’s uncle recalled. “And I kept thinking: ‘You mean your mother or grandmother didn’t tell you anything about it?’ What I think is that they blocked it out.”

With research and DNA testing, I was finally able to solve the mystery. I was able to identify the white ancestors who had remained hidden in Mrs. Obama’s family tree for more than a century as well as the constellation of distant white cousins who are alive and well today. They are members of the Shields family, which owned Mrs. Obama’s great-great-great grandmother and lived in Georgia in the 1850s and 1860s. For a glimpse of the first lady’s multiracial ancestors, please click here.

Mrs. Obama is the descendant of slaves and slave owners and her ancestors would climb from servitude to the White House in five generations. With its many multicolored strands, the story of her forbears reflects the sweep of American history.

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  1. what about the Irish connection

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