The New York Times recently published a story about Michelle Obama’s slavery ancestry, chronicling the story of a slave girl named Melvinia who was the mother to Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandfather. The tale is a harrowing, but familiar one of a former black slave giving birth to a “mulatto” child a short time after emancipation.
From The New York Times:
The newly discovered story of Mrs. Obama’s maternal ancestors — 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 forbear.
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.
While it must be odd to have a newspaper do a little family history digging without your input or approval, the article is a fascinating portrait of what is a reality for most Americans, black and white. That many of us our bound by the commonality of the Peculiar Institution. It was so pervasive. So ordinary. So much part of the everyday reality to have people as property that it literally touches all Americans within its reach.
Very few black people know their deeper roots due to the lack of paperwork and most history being oral. Even in my family where there is some photographic evidence of relatives at the turn of the century on both sides, we know very little about how some branches on the family tree got started. From relatives who disappeared and passed for white to those who could have passed and didn’t, but did not like to talk about their origins, a lot of the Robinson-Belton family tree in me is a mystery.
The most I know about my maternal slavery roots comes from an oral history from my grandmother, recalling how her father escaped from a Mississippi plantation with the rest of his family in a covered wagon in the dead of night. He was only a child at the time, but remembered how they wrapped the wagon wheels in sacks so that they wouldn’t make as much noise. Because of that great familial break for it I have routinely joked that my family members must have made truly “horrible” slaves. Even on the Belton side it’s the story of how some Beltons, descendants of the much larger clan of Carolina based black Beltons made it mysteriously all the way to Texas.
I’d love to know more about my roots, if only to gain a better understand of where my family has been and how far we have come. Both my parents have very humble roots — one raised eldest of nine by a pair of sharecroppers who worked their way right out of the fields, the other the middle child of a poor, but ambitious Northern Texas family. My sisters and I benefited greatly from the hard work of generations before us. It’s fascinating to see where their spirit and desire to press on in spite of great obstacles. That’s what attracts me the most.
Because of this I would love to hear your family stories, your oldest family stories if you have any about either the time during slavery or shortly after at the turn of the century. What is your family’s story?