Michelle Obama’s Ancestry Includes a Sold Six-Year-Old Slave Girl and a White Man

Michelle Obama's Ancestry Includes Slavery

Among the many benefits anticipated in Obama’s presidency is a more overt public discussion of race and racial tension in this country. This week the New York Times introduced a new element in its investigation into Michelle Obama’s family tree, which consists in part of slaves and of at least one white man:

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.

I think this story is interesting in the way the NYT presents it — as a sort of pat on the back for America’s progress. But I don’t particularly like the privileged tone with which the writer talks about how unremarkable stories of slavery and rape are. To whom is a story of a young girl being handed off from one slave owner to another “utterly unremarkable?” Someone whose family hasn’t suffered that history? Someone who’s not from the South? I understand the writer is attempting to work some literary device here, but I think the effect is to degrade the individual stories that comprise American history. The fact that the writer finds a source to comment on the unremarkable nature of horrific stories of slavery also seems odd and inappropriate:

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.”

No one should be surprised? Are we, then, supposed to become immune to the oppressive violence that is our nation’s history? Are we to teach our children that stories of slavery are unremarkable and unsurprising? What about the children whose ancestors were slaves? Do we tell them there’s nothing interesting about the distortion of their heritage due to the institution of slavery?

It’s an interesting project the NYT took on, but the pretentious way the author tries to set up why/how Michelle Obama’s story in particular is special degrades the many who still do not find slavery to be “utterly unremarkable.”

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66 thoughts on “Michelle Obama’s Ancestry Includes a Sold Six-Year-Old Slave Girl and a White Man

  1. So what? What is the point of dredging this all up? It’s safe to say most blacks in this country have some slave roots so why bring it up other than to incite hatred of white people?

    My ancestry includes people who were locked up in prison simply for speaking their mind politically. Do I get some kind of an award for that?

    • No one is giving Michelle Obama an award. If you were incredibly famous, your rabble-rouser activist ancestors would likely be common knowledge. Personally, I’d like to know about my ancestry, yet, unlike you and other white people, it’s not QUITE as easy for people who can only trace a couple generations back and then reach a vague plateau labeled ‘slavery.’ I need to get DNA testing just to find out what nationalities may have snuck into my bloodstream.

      And anyway, you don’t think those people in your ancestry are interesting? Because I bet Michelle Obama finds this story about HER ancestry interesting as well.

      • Honestly Syd it’s not that fascinating, I live in the present. I just dislike the idea of people reaching back into history to find an excuse to hate someone else. There are enough race issues in this country without searching for historical ones.

        • I don’t think people were searching for a reason to hate. I think people were searching just for fun, and how writers spin the information is solely the choice of the writers.

        • No one is hating on anyone. Just because you personally don’t give a fuck where you or anyone else came from doesn’t mean the rest of us have to ignore history or our own families.

      • Ah yes, us white people have no problems. We never reach plateaus like ‘all records destroyed by conquering nation’ or ‘records destroyed during attempt to exterminate race’ or anything like that.
        I’m not trying to downplay the horrible impacts of slavery. Let’s just not turn it into me/you, us/them stuff.

        • “So you think the purpose of this article was to incite some type of racial hatred?”

          Not intentionally, but black people who already hate whites will look at this and use it as an excuse for their own racism.

        • As a race? No, no you didn’t. Just going to put that out there. Some groups? Yes. Comprable to the scope of African-Americans? Not even close.

        • You speak of individuals searching their own histories. While yes, the chances of a random black american reaching a stuck point (most likely due to slavery) are higher than of a random white american reaching a stuck point (for whatever reason), that’s no reason to start blanketing all white people or all black people as one homogenous group.
          I am not trying to downplay the horrors in history. I just think that any time you start speaking in overbroad terms, it turns into us vs. them, and that’s completely counterproductive. ‘You and other white people’ are not all one any more than all black people can be grouped. I think that seeing individuals as individuals is an important part of moving beyond past racial problems.

        • Fact is, though, most white people are capable of tracing their histories to earlier than the mid-1800s, wheras the vast majority of African-Americans cannot. It’s not an us vs. them, it’s pointing out to a group of people that likely has no possible way of understanding this specific issue.

  2. I dunno, I read different things into it. I think it helps more to HIGHLIGHT how awful those things are than anything else. One underage girl being raped and traded like property is a tragedy, but the institutionalized acceptance and repeat occurrence of that kind of thing is a different story entirely.

    The way I read the quoted text, it sounded to me more like “But before you go thinking this is some super-special extra-tragic incident that just happened to this one girl and maybe two other women, try to keep in mind that life was like this for a LOT of slave women. Awful, isn’t it?” It’s saying “no one should be surprised” because no one SHOULD be surprised that people being treated like property would also be exploited in every way possible, sexual included. The text as I see it definitely doesn’t read “no one should be surprised that this kind of thing happened, so GOD you guys, GET OVER IT,” it’s more “this was not an isolated incident, this kind of awful thing happened all the time, but it’s weird – and maybe even a little bit comforting – to think that a thriving, prosperous family line can come from such terrible and all too common beginnings.”

    That’s what I got out of it, anyway.

    • Agreed. I didn’t read insensitivity to the rape and sexual exploitation of slaves, but rather that it lamentably happened a whole freaking lot; the rape of a young slave girl was “unremarkable” in that it isn’t “unique”.

      I think it’s interesting to hear about her family history. Totally irrelevant, perhaps, but nevertheless intriguing.

  3. Is it really so hard to understand? It’s like saying Mr. Jewishguy, was sent to Auschwitz. Unsuprisingly, he was gassed to death.
    It shouldn’t be suprising – that’s what they *did* at Auschwitz. That doesn’t mean we condone it, or lessen the horror, it simply means that it’s an expected outcome.

    Similarly, when we know that most women growing up in slavery were raped at some point by a white man, it *shouldn’t* be suprising to say that Miss Slavegirl was raped and impregnated. If you’re suprised by that, in light of the fact that it was widespread and common, then you really need to rethink your expectations. Or look up the definition of ‘suprised’.

    ‘Remarkableness’ or ‘suprisability’ has no relation to acceptibility or rightness. They are two very very different things. Slavery is completely wrong. Breaking up families is completely wrong. Selling young girls is completely wrong. But the fact that a young black slave in 1850 was sold to another state, is unremarkable. Expectable even. Wrong and terrible, but not suprising.

  4. So should we do research on all living “important” people and find out what atrocities were done to their ancestors? I’m sure Mayor Koch and Michael Bloomberg had holocaust survivors in their family tree but no one’s researching it now are they? It seems like every time some sort of genealogical research is done on a well known black person it’s done for the sole purpose of stirring up racial shit. The message of this is the usual “whitey is the devil” baloney. Can we please just get past this already and focus on the here and now?

      • I, for one, do not believe that Machelle Obama has any white blood in her. Not by the way she looks.And allthough I do regret that slavory ever existed,when you come to the facts about rape, during slavory,you are talking with out proof. There is no doubt in my mind that rapes did occur,by white slave owners on black women,but remember this. The population back then was not even a fraction of what it is today,so lets talk about rapes today of white women by black men.This out weighs the rapes of slave days by millions.This racial bullshit works both ways.

        • Oh yes, there’s a direct comparison between a rich man raping a woman that he owns and a stranger attacking a woman on the street. It’s not a competition and your statement makes no sense. Think before you speak and save yourself some embarrassment.

        • Yeah, because there’s no way in hell Michelle Obama could look black and have white ancestors. You being the expert on what black people look like.

    • Even if I’m not interested, the geneticists really seem to love researching famous people. I remember something coming up in 2004 about Bush and Kerry being some gazillionth number cousins. So I think that some people just find presidents interesting fodder, where a mayor might not be as worthwhile. Actually, I’ll bet you that someone in New York (I think those are New York mayors?) has researched those histories, but it’s a lot less interesting to the national media.
      It’s not uncommon that a black woman with old American roots would have slaves in her background, so it’s really just a question of how the information is used. So I’d blame the media for the slant, not the researchers (who just find this stuff cool).

      • I’m sure that many, many people have somebody interesting in their family trees. I’m a descendant of Thomas Hardy, for example.

        • Oh, doubtless. I just tend to figure that it’s not as though I have any meaningful connection to my 8th great grandfather, so does it matter who he was? I realize, though, that some people just find the connections fun, and that’s cool.

    • I got completely the opposite from the source article. It didn’t make me hate white people, it made me feel pride in America because we’ve overcome so much racial hatred.

  5. They’re NOT surprising if you have an ounce of education on the subject. What IS surprising is the fact that they were able to actually trace this story. Almost no one who’s family has been in the country for more than a couple generations is ‘racially pure,’ much less blacks. This is how slave owners got free slaves. Sad? Yes. Surprising? Not really. It makes a sick, twisted, racist, misogynistic kind of sense. You are a man, you have one female slave, you want more slaves, you don’t want to pay. Man+woman=baby. At the time, a slave woman gives birth to a baby, and it can come out blonde, blue eyed, with ‘I am the slave master’s spawn’ stamped on its behind, and it still has to be a slave.

  6. Though not offended like Syd by the NYT article, I take issue with the likes of Suri wanting to lecture us black people how to feel about slavery. There are just so many reasons why we cannot yet “get past this already and focus on the here and now”.

    That you have, with whatever be in your ancestral past, bully for you mate! But save your lecture for your children.


      • I’ll quote my opening: “Though not offended like Syd by the NYT article…” Quite clear for anyone that can read and comprehend.


    • Well I can search my ancestral tree looking for evidence of black people who did bad things to my family and then post it online to stir up racial BS and get all the white people wound up at blacks. I’m sure that would be appreciated right? That will really help heal racial rifts.

      • It is hoped then that if you were to find such evidence it would be accompanied by the reasons for it, eh? Always go for the full story.

        If what you’re displaying here is indicative of your method of helping to heal racial rifts then you remind me of Don Quixote.


        • Cute. My point is why publicize it? If you showed this story to any random black person is would make them angry towards whites and that is why I feel it’s counterproductive to run around publicizing it. We all know it happened, we learned it in school and we’ve heard the misery merchants beat us over the head with it for the past couple of decades so why do we need more? We have slavery happening in real time right now in Africa but I don’t hear anyone in the black community complaining about it. Why?

        • You know what, Suri? I don’t think you’ve got the inside track on what a black person would think.
          I think maybe you should just stick to having your own reactions instead of anticipating reactions from other people and flying off the handle because of your suppositions.

      • I think that anyone with an ounce of logic knows that this is not meant to incite racial hatred of whites, seeing as Michelle Obama has never, to my knowledge, done anything to imply that she hates whites. As far as ‘showing it to any black person’ and it making them hate whites….wow. The amount of ideological racism in that statement is BAFFLING. It implies you think that blacks are INHERENTLY too stupid to differentiate between a few slave-owning whites that died almost 200 years ago and the entire white race. Trust me, as ‘any random black person,’ I am not angry at whites as a whole, or any white person who’s not wronged me. I think that it would be counterproductive to dwell on it, yes. But to acknowledge it? Psh, you’re just mad that even though you ‘learned it in school,’ you’re STILL a victim of the white-centered education system and therefore actually have next to no knowledge of nonwhite history, even if it happened in your own country. We need more because trust me, even to say that what we learn in school is scratching the surface is a disgusting understatement, and not just about slavery, but the plight of ANYONE who was not a wealthy white male.

        For the record, I know about modern slavery, and I DO complain about it, just not when we’re discussing totally unrelated topics. Also, it’s not legal to own slaves and rape women. Unlike it was pre-Civil War. We can punish the current human traffickers if we catch them, unlike whoever raped the woman in question, who was 100% legally allowed to buy, sell, beat, and rape her. If he was caught doing what he did, he’d be patted on the back and told to keep on. Unlike today, where such practices are generally not socially acceptable.

        • Syd you are wrong. The education system is not “white centered” it’s multicultural. No one graduates high school without being schooled about the Holocaust, slavery, african history, apartheid ect. but the fact is our country was started by Europeans so of course we spend a great deal of time on that. And as for thinking blacks are stupid that is just rubbish. I do not think blacks are stupid but I do think there is an undercurrent of anti-white racism in many parts of black America and If you think it’s “offensive” to point that out maybe you should re-examine your own racial attitudes. There is a black college professor, a black panther, calling for white people to be exterminated. That offends me. Should we just brush that under the carpet?

        • I’m wrong? Please. Point out any average third grader and ask them about world war two. They could go on for ages about how the Nazis killed the Jews. However, most adults couldn’t recall that the United States put scores of innocent Japanese-Americans in ‘internement camps.’ Suri, fact is, anyone who thinks that the American education system isn’t white centric is an uneducated, ignorant moron. Even look at world history. 20 chapters of European history, with a couple chapters of Asian history and passing mentions of Africa and South America, don’t even THINK about Australian natives, they may as well not even exist.

          And sure, there are some people racist against whites, but if you say that showing this story to any random black person would make them hate whites, it PROVES that you are a racist fuck who believes that blacks are stupid enough to gather that. We aren’t talking about a black panther here, we are talking about acknowledging American history that doesn’t make every single white person look like a shining savior. You can be offended by someone calling for the killing of whites (I’m pretty offended by that too). But I don’t see what this obsession is with claiming that any black person who acknowledges their own past is an anti-white racist. What has Michelle Obama EVER done to make you think this? Nothing. YOU are the racist, my dear. Not people who choose not to live like uneducated rednecks.

        • That’s utter hogwash. We learned about internment camps in school and we thoroughly covered the history of China and India and the South American Incas. Schools do their best to cover all relevant topics, but just because they don’t cover every single tribe on the planet doesn’t make them racist. And are you aware of what the Japanese did to our captured men during WW2? They weren’t innocent either you know, war is ugly. How much of their atrocities did you cover in school?

          And btw, why do the Obama’s associate with Reverend Wright if they don’t dislike whites? That always bugged me.

  7. Re Alzaetia @ October 16, 2009 at 9:31 am…

    Apparently you righted your inverted brain and got it. Just admit and be done with it. We can all restate any idea in perhaps an infinite number of ways, especially in English.


    • No. Your grammar was stating that unlike Syd, you weren’t offended: “Though (I was) not offended like Syd.” And no, English grammar isn’t especially flexible. Probably the other way round. Enligh is not a flexible language when it comes to grammar. Italian, Portuguese or Spanish are. Believe me, I’m a translator.

      • MIREEE, why are you quarrelling (double-L intended) with success? Your interpretation is exactly what I was conveying. (BTW, I speak Spanish too, and have a working knowledge of Portuguese; I am presently studying Akan/Twi in preparation for my upcoming trip to Ghana.)

        • If you are saying that you think Syd was offended, why did you accuse me of misunderstanding you?
          If you didn’t think Syd was offended, what the hell are you talking about right now?

  8. SURI, I have no doubt that your head is in the right place. But you cannot brow-beat people into taking some given position on anything. Something like slavery and its aftermath will invoke a myriad of opinions from people. And while things have got much better for black people, slavery still remains a vexing topic.

    Only the most docile among blacks (and perhaps “wannabees”) would accept just simply forgetting about our past. Still, that does not make me go around hating white people; I believe I’m just as normal as the next soul in our society.


    • Who said it should be forgotten? I wasn’t suggesting anything of the sort I simply would like people to stop hating whites. What purpose does it serve? Replacing one form of racism with another isn’t going to solve anything.

      • Maybe then you can enlighten me as to what exactly “get past this already and focus on the here and now” means.

        If anyone as a group needs to be told to stop hating another, my dear sir, it would be whites re blacks, full stop! Economic necessity alone is enough reason for black people not being able to.


        • There’s no excuse to hate on anyone. My comment about “getting past it” is focusing on the important issues of today and improving the lives of people instead of obsessing about history.

  9. What is it… am I in the hot seat today?

    Alzaetia, your head went topsy-turvy again. Mireee said: “Your grammar was stating that unlike Syd, you weren’t offended”. That statement needs a comma after “that” to be perfect, but that’s precisely what I was saying. Your original problem is that you thought I was saying Syd was offended by Suri, when it was the NYT (New York Times). After I reiterated what I had said, you saw the light but smartly went on to challenge the way I worded my opening clause (a low blow attempt). It failed.

    To clarify once again, I’m saying that I believe Sid is offended by the NYT article, whereas I am not offended by it.

    Me done wid dis now.
    –Æ out.

    • No, I originally said that I didn’t think Syd was offended by the article. I said I thought that Syd was annoyed by Suri. Why did you feel the need to correct me if I didn’t misunderstand what you said?

      • I just reread the first thing I said to you and your response. If you were saying all along that you thought Syd was offended, then I comprehended what you were saying. I was simply disagreeing with you about Syd seeming offended.
        See, I completely mistook your response about comprehension. I thought you were saying that you didn’t think Syd was offended, when in actuality, you were just being a total bitch about the way that you confirmed that you thought Syd was offended.
        I guess that’s my bad for not assuming you were being a bitch?

        • Because people like you exist. Read some of the absolutely untrue, ignorant, racist redneck bullshit you’ve written on this page. You’ve got some kind of bizarre victim complex based on any black person implying that even a single white person was bad. You hate the idea that black people want to acknowledge their own past or learn about their OWN FAMILY. Fact is, you are an offensive, ignorant racist. No argument.

        • You know what Syd, I’m not even going to waste my time responding to your baseless allegations. Anyone who doesn’t believe you’re some great victim of society is a racist redneck bigot in your mind and nothing is going to change your perception. If you want to sit here and wallow in victimhood that is your choice but personally I feel sorry for you. It’s very sad that you are so full of anger at the world around you.

          Have a nice day, I am DONE with this topic.

        • I don’t think syd is a great victim of society. I do however think that you are a racist suri. Not only that but you seem to think that anyone different from you is beneath you based on other posts you’re written on other articles. It’s not a nice attitude and if you’re this bad IRL it’s really going to hold you back in life.

        • You know what Rhonda? You’re awfully quick to label people with the scarlet letter and that makes me wonder what your agenda is here. I have never been accused of racism by a black person only by extremist whites like you who are trying to alleviate your own white guilt at my expense. All I stated was that I don’t think it’s productive to obsess about problems in history when there are real world problems happening right now that we could actually do something about. And I’m “racist” for that? You’re sick in the head if you think something that happened to dead people is more important than what’s happening to living people right now while we are arguing this bullshit. History is to be studied and learned from not obsessed about or used to be hateful towards other groups. I care more about the slavery that’s going on right now…the slavery of those poor people in the Sudan and those poor russian/eastern european women trapped in the horror of sex slavery because those are things we can actually do something about. I can’t do shit about something that happened 200 years ago. Nothing is going to bring back the dead. I guess you’re just trying to alleviate your own sense of superiority by ass licking black people, how patronizing of you.

        • No, I’m not quick to label people. I’m not a big fan of labels and I wouldn’t slap someone with one unless I truly believed that it fit. Your attitude tells me that you are racist. You appear to think that all news that mentions race is meant to incite racial hatred. I’m not an extremist and I certainly don’t have white guilt.

          Most people are interested in knowing where they come from. I can trace my roots back and I know that my family were big land owners at one time. Does that information make me hate the people who now own the land? Does it make me feel superior to those who don’t own land? Absolutely not, it’s just a curiosity. I’m sure Michele was interested to learn about her ancestors too but I hardly think it’s going to make her suddenly hate all white people.

          You say that your ancestry includes people who were locked in prison for their political beliefs. Do you hate the people who hold the same political beliefs now? If you don’t then why would you assume that a modern day black person would hate all white people because of what our ancestors did? Most people who read this story will think it’s interesting and informative. You jump right to inciting racial hatred and you wouldn’t do that if you didn’t have racial hatred of your own.

          Everyone has their prejudices and there’s really no shame in that so long as you acknowledge them and work against them. It’s the ones who refuse to admit that they have an issue that I have a problem with.

  10. There is and always will be racisiam on both sides,so who the hell cares .I am white and yes , to a certain degree, I am a racist,but not just against blacks.To me the word racist means hate, and I hate some blacks ,but I probably hate more whites. I am racist to indivual people of all colors and creeds and I really don`t give a shit what you think or call me. My only goal in life is to raise my family,protect them, and try to give them a better life then I had. If a person does wrong to me or my family, you could dam sure believe I will attack one way or the other and I will hate or in your terms , be racist against that person,no matter what the fuck color he or she is.

    • That’s a willful ignorance of the meaning of racism. Racism is to hate solely because of the colour of skin, and to hate all members of that ‘race’ because of preconceived notions, or a bad experience with none.
      If you come to hate someone who did something bad against you, that’s not racism. If you come to hate against all people of the same colour of someone who did something bad against you, that’s racism.
      Why go out of your way to misuse the terms?

      • Well said. I tried to reply this morning but every time I tried my brain just couldn’t deal with the multiple levels of ignorance that early in the morning.

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