The secret history of Michelle Obama

Family tree suggests an ancestor was raped by white slave owner
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The Independent Online

If Michelle Obama had heard stories of a little white laced in with the black in the distant branches of her family tree, she is no longer in any doubt. All the land learnt yesterday about the slave girl Melvinia – her great-great-great grandmother – and the mixed-race boy she would one day bear.

The remarkable narrative of Mrs Obama's maternal roots was laid out for the first time by The New York Times, using research by Megan Smolenyak, a renowned genealogist.

It confirms what Mrs Obama long suspected: that there was racial intermingling in her bloodline in the distant days before the end of slavery.

That her husband is of mixed descent has, of course, always been central to his public biography (his father was from Kenya, his mother was white, from Kansas.) But this is something new to the story of Michelle.

Melvinia was a child of eight when her master, David Patterson, died and bequeathed her (she was valued at $475) to his descendants in Georgia, to whom she was duly shipped.

"She was treated like a piece of property in a will and when she was only eight years old, she was sent across the South," Jodi Kantor, a co-author of the Times story, said.

Melvinia's name is there in writing in an inventory to the will left by Patterson, one of a series of newly uncovered documents and photographs used by Ms Smolenyak in her scholarship.

Melvinia laboured for her new owner, Christianne, the daughter of Patterson, and her husband, Henry Shields.

Exactly who impregnated her some years later, probably when she was aged 15, is unknown. Mr Shields was in his late forties at the time and had four sons of reproductive age. It seems probable, however, that the union was born of coercion, if not rape.

Professor Jason Gillmer, from Texas Wesleyan University, said: "No one should be surprised any more to hear about the number of rapes and the amount of sexual exploitation that took place under slavery; it was an everyday experience."

It was the offspring of that liaison, a man called Dolphus Shields, who set the lineage on the rising gradient that one day would bring one of its members to the highest home in the country. Shields moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where he set up a business and became a deacon in his church.

Dolphus lived until 1950, the dawn of the civil rights revolution that buried the last vestiges of America's slave culture, brought an end to racial segregation and laid the first foundations of a society that could, in 2008, elect a black person as President.

There are still some people alive in Alabama who remember Dolphus as a devoted Christian who would take his children to church almost daily. His mixed-race parentage was evident. "He was very light-skinned, beautiful hair, very fair-skinned," Bobbie Holt, an informally adopted daughter of the deacon, said. "You could almost mistake him for being white."

Of the children of Dolphus, one of them, Robert Lee, married an Alabama seamstress called Annie. They had a son, Purnell, who moved to Chicago, where he worked as a painter.

Purnell and his wife had several children in the Windy City, among them Marion Shields, who would one day marry Fraser Robinson, a local pump operator. Marion and Fraser are the parents of the first lady.