The story of (some of) Michelle Obama’s ancestors

Here is today’s New York Times article about Michelle Obama’s great great great grandmother, born in slavery, who bore children to a white man. The reporters try to inject some larger meaning into the story and pass the meaning onto the person of Michelle Obama, but the meaning just isn’t there. As the editor of characterized the article, “The adoring NY Times and the First Lady’s crack staff in another labored attempt to make her interesting.” The remark is not unjust. However, while the article does not succeed in making Michelle interesting, it is interesting, as a story of family history and as a typical example of the way the Times strives to shape perceptions of race in America. In particular, the reporters try to fit the union of Michelle’s ancestress and ancestor into the usual picture of white slave-owner sexual exploitation of black females, but the facts they present suggest just the opposite picture.

I’ve commented on the article and put my comments in brackets.

In First Lady’s Roots, a Complex Path From Slavery

WASHINGTON—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, represents 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. [“Enslaved” is a recent, PC term used in place of “a slave.” It’s purpose is to suggest

Viewed by many as a powerful symbol of black advancement, Mrs. Obama grew up with only a vague sense of her ancestry, aides and relatives said. During the presidential campaign, the family learned about one paternal great-great-grandfather, a former slave from South Carolina, but the rest of Mrs. Obama’s roots were a mystery. [She “grew up with only a vague sense of her ancestry”? How many people know anything about their great great great grandparents? And do you know how many great great great grandparents each of us has? Thirty two. So Melvinia Shields was one of 32 great great great grandparents of Michelle Obama. Yet it’s presented as odd, as some kind of deprivation, that Michelle doesn’t know much about her. Liberals cannot relate positively to anything unless it is seen as part of a struggle against inequality and oppression.]

Now the more complete map of Mrs. Obama’s ancestors—including 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 forebear.

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. Mrs. Obama and her family declined to comment for this article, aides said, in part because of the personal nature of the subject. [But everyone knows that black Americans have a large proportion of white ancestry stemming from slave days. It’s sometimes estimated that the average white ancestry in the black American population is as much as 25 percent. Which means that Michelle’s known white ancestry, at about three percent, stemming from her unknown white great great great grandfather, is very little. But liberals can never stop going back to drink from the same well of racial oppression and racial pathos, no matter how many times they’ve drunk from it before. Here the reporters mention racial intermingling born of violence and coercion. But, as we shall see, the facts relayed in the story suggest the opposite of violence and coercion.]

“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.” [How is Michelle any more representative of black Americans than 35 million other black Americans, all of whom are descended from slaves?]

“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.” [Sorry, but the fact that the black population has a significant admixture of white forebears (most of them slave owners) does not mean that “we’ve all mingled.” The white population of America is white, not significantly “mingled” with black and Latino, as much as the liberals would like to define whiteness out of existence.]

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. Ms. Smolenyak, who has traced the ancestry of many prominent figures, began studying the first lady’s roots in earnest after conducting some preliminary research into Mrs. Obama’s ancestry for an article published in The New York Times earlier this year.

Of the dozens of relatives she identified, Ms. Smolenyak said, it was the slave girl who seemed to call out most clearly.

“Out of all Michelle’s roots, it’s Melvinia who is screaming to be found,” she said. [Oh, the self-importance of this.]

When her owner, David Patterson, died in 1852, Melvinia soon found herself on a 200-acre farm with new masters, Mr. Patterson’s daughter and son-in law, Christianne and Henry Shields. It was a strange and unfamiliar world.

In South Carolina, she had lived on an estate with 21 slaves. In Georgia, she was one of only three slaves on property that is now part of a neat subdivision in Rex, near Atlanta. [Notice how in the last two paragraphs the authors try to make it seem that Melvinia was ripped away from her familiar world to an unhappy place among strangers, perhaps as a field hand. In fact, her master died, and she went with her master’s daughter and son-in-law. She went from an estate with 21 slaves to a household with just three. In other words, she went from a larger, more impersonal estate to a small home, where she was a house servant, living in close proximity with her owners. ]

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. [Trying to make it seem that she might have been a field hand is shameless b.s. If there were only three slaves at the Shield’s farm, it was a very small place and it had no such thing as “field hands” in the usual sense of the term. She was most likely a household servant who also worked on the garden.]

It is difficult to say who might have impregnated Melvinia, who gave birth to Dolphus around 1859, when she was perhaps as young as 15. At the time, Henry Shields was in his late 40s and had four sons ages 19 to 24, but other men may have spent time on the farm.

“No one should be surprised anymore to hear about the number of rapes and the amount of sexual exploitation that took place under slavery; it was an everyday experience, ” said Jason A. Gillmer, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University, who has researched liaisons between slave owners and slaves. “But we do find that some of these relationships can be very complex.” [Note that Gillmer starts off talking about “rape” and “sexual exploitation,” then switches to relationships that were “very complex.” In the following paragraphs, we’ll see why the authors had to qualify the “rape” business.]

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. [Thus the man fathered three or four children with Melvinia between 1859 and 1869. Meaning that they had a relationship extending over at least ten years, and that she stayed with him for years after she was no longer a slave. Meaning that there relationship was probably that of husband and wife raising a family. Yes, that certainly adds “complexity” to the tale of rape and sexual exploitation.]

Even after she was freed, Melvinia stayed put, working as a farm laborer on land adjacent to that of Charles Shields, one of Henry’s sons.

But sometime in her 30s or 40s, census records show, Melvinia broke away and managed to reunite with former slaves from her childhood on the Patterson estate: Mariah and Bolus Easley, who settled with Melvinia in Bartow County, near the Alabama border. Dolphus married one of the Easleys’ daughters, Alice, who is Mrs. Obama’s great-great-grandmother.

A community “that had been ripped apart was somehow pulling itself back together,” Ms. Smolenyak said of the group in Bartow County.

Still, Melvinia appears to have lived with the unresolved legacy of her childhood in slavery until the very end. Her 1938 death certificate, signed by a relative, says “don’t know” in the space for the names of her parents, suggesting that Melvinia, then in her 90s, may never have known herself.

Sometime before 1888, Dolphus and Alice Shields continued the migration, heading to Birmingham, a boomtown with a rumbling railroad, an iron and steel industry and factories that attracted former slaves and their children from across the South.

Dolphus Shields was in his 30s and very light skinned—some say he looked like a white man—a church-going carpenter who could read, write and advance in an industrializing town. By 1900, he owned his own home, census records show. By 1911, he had opened his own carpentry and tool sharpening business. [If Dolphus was very light skinned and looked like a white man, than he had to be more than one-half white. Therefore Melvinia herself had to have been part white. In her master’s will, she is described as “negro.” That is not consistent with the physical description of her son. Perhaps she had a significant degree of white ancestry herself, but looked dark, so was called “negro.”]

A co-founder of First Ebenezer Baptist Church and Trinity Baptist Church, which later became active in the civil rights movement, he supervised Sunday schools at both churches, which still exist today, and at Regular Missionary Baptist Church.

“He was the dean of the deacons in Birmingham,” said Helen Heath, 88, who attended church with him. “He was a serious man. He was about business.”

He carried his family into the working-class, moving into a segregated neighborhood of striving black homeowners and renters. In his home, there was no smoking, no cursing, no gum chewing, no lipstick or trousers for ladies and absolutely no blues on the radio, which was reserved for hymns, remembered Bobbie Holt, 73, who was raised by Mr. Shields and his fourth wife, Lucy. She said the family went to church “every night of the week, it seemed like.” [Bobbie Holt, 73, was born around 1936, when Dolphus was 77. By the time Bobbie was old enough to have memories, Dolphus would have been in his 80s. when did Dolphus die? The article says later that he died in 1950, when Bobbie would have been 14. Ok, so she was raised by him, and remembers him. That’s a remarkable thing, that in the year 2009 there is a 73 year old woman who was raised by a man who was born in slavery before the Civil War.]

He carried peppermints for neighborhood children, Mrs. Holt said, and told funny stories about his escapades as a boy. But his family struggled.

His first wife, Alice Easley Shields, moved around after they split up, working as a seamstress and a maid, and two of their sons stumbled.

Robert Lee Shields, Mrs. Obama’s great-grandfather, married Annie Lawson in 1906 and worked as a laborer and a railroad porter but disappeared from the public record sometime around his 32nd birthday.

Willie Arthur Shields, an inventor who obtained patents for improving dry cleaning operations, ended up working as a maintenance man, Mrs. Holt said.

As for his ancestry, Dolphus Shields didn’t talk about it.

“We got to the place where we didn’t want anybody to know we knew slaves; people didn’t want to talk about that,” said Mrs. Heath, who said she assumed he had white relatives because his skin color and hair texture “told you he had to be near white.” [Again, Dolphus could not have been “near white” unless his mother, Melvinia, had a significant degree of white ancestry. Thus Melvinia had to be part white, though called “negro” in her master’s will.]

At a time when blacks despaired at the intransigence and violence of whites who barred them from voting, from most city jobs, from whites-only restaurants and from owning property in white neighborhoods, Dolphus Shields served as a rare link between the deeply divided communities.

His carpentry shop stood in the white section of town, and he mixed easily and often with whites. “They would come to his shop and sit and talk,” Mrs. Holt said.

Dolphus Shields firmly believed race relations would improve. “It’s going to come together one day,” he often said, Mrs. Holt recalled.

By the time he died in 1950 at age 91, change was on the way. On June 9, 1950, the day that his obituary appeared on the front page of The Birmingham World, the black newspaper also ran a banner headline that read, “U.S. Court Bans Segregation in Diners and Higher Education.” The Supreme Court had outlawed separate but equal accommodations on railway cars and in universities in Texas and Oklahoma.

Up North, his grandson, a painter named Purnell Shields, Mrs. Obama’s grandfather, was positioning his family to seize the widening opportunities in Chicago.

But as his descendants moved forward, they lost touch with the past. Today, Dolphus Shields lies in a neglected black cemetery, where patches of grass grow knee-high and many tombstones have toppled.

Mrs. Holt, a retired nursing assistant, said he came to her in a dream last month. She dug up his photograph, never guessing that she would soon learn that Dolphus Shields was a great-great-grandfather of the first lady.

“Oh, my God,” said Mrs. Holt, gasping at the news. “I always looked up to him, but I would never have imagined something like this. Praise God, we’ve come a long way.”

[end of article]

As I said at the beginning, the story has an inherent interest. But the authors try to overlay the story with a lot of pathos and racial significance that it simply doesn’t support.

When it comes to racial ancestry, which is the center of gravity of the article, what have we learned about Michelle? That her great great grandfather, Dolphus Shields, was largely white, let’s say three-quarters white. Meaning that three quarters of one-sixteenth of her ancestry is white. Which is much less than many other American blacks. And therefore?

- end of initial entry -

Paul K. writes:

I was struck by this line in the article: “While she was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time,” which implies that the under-age Melvinia was robbed of her innocence by an older man of a different race. I assume we are not meant to notice how remarkably similar this sounds to Michelle’s husband’s own origins.

P.S. I found your recent revelations of Auster family history far more interesting!

LA replies:

Good catch. The reporters suggest something dark, bad, and mysterious, but what their own facts state (the obvious implications of which they ignore) is a sustained, common-law type relationship.

James P. writes:

You wrote:

“How many people know anything about their great great great grandparents?”

I know basically nothing about my great grandparents! [LA replies: That’s the case with probably a majority of people.]

“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.”

Two white people (plus the Shields sons?) and three black slaves on 200 acres with lots of animals. That sounds like plenty of back-breaking work for everybody. This couldn’t have just been the blacks working while the whites supervised.

LA replies:

I missed the fact that the Shields farm had 200 acres. It makes no sense that a 200 acre farm had only three slaves. Maybe the Shields employed paid white laborers for the farm, and the three slaves were just for household duties. Or maybe the Shields had a large family.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 08, 2009 07:50 PM | Send

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