Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tracing Michelle Obama's Biracial Heritage

Today's edition of our local newspaper ran a reprint of an article written by Rachel L. Swarns and Jodi Kantor, first published in the The New York Times. The article details the recent discovery that Melvinia Shields, a former slave on an estate in South Carolina, who later lived in Georgia and Alabama, is the maternal great-great-great-grandmother of America's First Lady, Michelle Obama. The relationship was traced back through one of Melvinia's four sons, Dolphus T. Shields. According to the article, three of these sons, including Dolphus, were listed as "mulatto" on the U. S. Census of 1870.

Research for the article was conducted by Megan Smolenyak, a self-described "
genealogical adventurer" and an "incurable genealogist who loves to solve mysteries." Megan's credentials are quite impressive. She is the Chief Family Historian of, President of, and the Founder of And when Megan isn't busy with those duties and responsibilities, she writes a blog, Megan's Roots World, and maintains a website, Honoring Our Ancestors.

The article states "One (child) was born four years after emancipation, a suggestion that the liaison that produced those children endured after slavery." Apparently, Melvinia "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."

The context of the article continues with information stating "Melvinia broke away and managed to reunite with former slaves from her childhood on the Patterson estate: Maria and Bolus Easley, who settled with Melvinia in Bartow County, near the Alabama border." Later, Melvinia's son, Dolphus Shields, married Alice, one of the Easley daughters. The article goes on to state that Alice Easley Shields and Dolphus T. Shields are Michelle Obama's great-great-grandparents and further identifies Purnell Shields, a grandson of Alice and Dolphus, as Ms. Obama's maternal grandfather. The story is a fascinating one - a story of the legacy of a biracial child born to a slave mother that spans five generations.

African-American genealogy research is certainly not new, and with online resources that are now available to most researchers, family histories similar to Michelle Obama's are not unfamiliar. But large conferences dedicated to bringing African-American research groups together have been almost non-existent. Later this month that will all change. On October 29-31, 2009, the first International Black Genealogy Summitt will be held at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. According to the announcement, this event "signifies the first time that all of the black historical and genealogical societies in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean will come together to celebrate the joys and challenges of black genealogy."

Today, I read a post published by the You Go Genealogy Girls, nominated this week as one of the 40 Best Genealogy Blogs. One of the authors quoted something that was stated at a recent genealogy conference, and the words caught my eye. The quote read like this:

"Jelly beans are like our family members. Some are sweet and some are more sour. Some of our 'beans' may be white and some may be black, some may have freckles while others may not. Each precious one is an unexpected individual and we love each one for who and what they are. When they are all together, they can become quite a mixed bag......They are the fuel of life ..."

Jelly bean genealogy............I like that!

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