Michelle Obama’s Slave Ancestry & Presidential Identity Politics

Michelle Obama & Ann Romney

The recent news, emerging from the new book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, by New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns, finally provides in a detailed history how the First Lady‘s ancestry, like that of millions of other African-Americans who have had ancestors who were both white slave-owners and black slaves.

In fact, through the two years of her in-depth research, Swarns discovered that in the families of all four of Mrs. Obama‘s grandparents there have been ancestors from a wide variety of cultures and nations, including Irish immigrants and Native Americans of the Cherokee tribe.

Dolphus Shields, whose father was white and mother was black, great-grandfather of Marian Shields Robinson, mother of the First Lady, seen with her here. (New York Times and Essence Magazine photos)

In the case of her maternal grandfather, his great-grandfather was Henry Wells Shields, a northern Georgia farmer who owned slaves, including a girl by the name of Melvinia, who was eight years old when she came to live and work on his land  in 1852. Eight years later, it was his son, Charles Marion Shields, who at the age of about 20, had a child by Melvinia. Their son, Dolphus Shields was thus mixed-race, and is the great-great-grandfather of the First Lady and the great-grandfather of her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, who lives in the White House as part of the First Family.

Swarns also discovered that the painful legacy of slavery so affected the subsequent generations of the First Lady’s families that many members did not discuss the issue or pursue details about their white slave-owner and black slave ancestors. As the first presidential couple with both the racial ancestry and choice of identity as  African-Americans, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are culturally and politically significant simply by being the President or First Lady.

The only known picture showing Barack Obama with both of his parents, Barack, Sr. and his second wife Ann, taken after their divorce when the senior Obama visited them in Hawaii, in 1971.

The President’s mother, of white European descent, was married to his Kenyan father, who had no family history in the U.S. of slavery or otherwise. While the President experienced racism as a black man due simply to his appearance, he did not further carry the family legacy of American slavery.

During the 2008 campaign, and following his election, these facts opened a dialogue among many African-American historians and commentators about the President’s “blackness.” It was suggested that as a result of his wife’s family history including African-American slavery, many white and black voters would find her having had the more “authentic” experiences of those whose families had struggled for generations against racism in the U.S. than that of her husband, President Barack Obama.  Neither Obama ever mentioned or addressed such speculation and it is difficult to determine what, if any, political affect the then-candidate’s wife ancestry had on the electorate.

As Rachel Swarn’s assiduously-researched American Tapestry shows, however, the tracing from slavery to the White House in just five generations is an astounding story with important historical significance for any American recognizing the collective interest in overcoming racism.

Certainly there have been numerous examples in the past of  ethnicity, ethnic identity, religion and religious identityof candidates’ and Presidential wives being either exploited, denied or manipulated to serve the political purposes of their husbands’.

Ann Romney on the campaign trail.

And given the fact that were this year’s Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to be elected, he would be the first Mormon to serve as Chief Executive, it is likely that the media will seek to investigate the posthumous conversion to that faith of his wife’s father.

Mitt Romney’s great-grandmother, Canadian daugher of Scottish immigrants, with his grandfather on her lap, was one of five wives to his great-grandfather and settled in Mexico.

The 2012 Presidential Election’s two candidates, President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney, and their wives, represent seemingly rare racial and ethnic demographics, yet in many way quintessentially American, that they all serve as a window into and starting point for more in-depth consideration of the entire subject of American racial and religious identity.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, for example, both had great-grandfathers who shared the same number of polygamous wives – five each.

See the article about this first time in history when two first-generation Americans are running against each other for President: https://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/06/15/foreign-born-fathers-of-obama-romney-makes-a-first-generation-historic-first/

Ann Romney’s father represents an unusual demographic not only for having been an immigrant from Wales but as an avowed Atheist. Yet neither her ancestry nor that of Michelle Obama have been the first to draw public interest and questions.

This is the first in a series exploring the political and cultural significance of the Irish and French Catholic heritage of Jacqueline Kennedy, the Irish Catholic and German immigrant background of Pat Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt‘s rarely-discussed Irish immigrant great-grandparents, Mamie Eisenhower‘s Swedish immigrant grandparents, Florence Harding‘s denial of German and alleged Jewish heritage and Edith Wilson’s exploitation of her remote Native American ancestry.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Pat Nixon (left), Edith Wilson and Florence Harding (center), Eleanor Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower, unidentified woman in middle (right).

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Categories: Barack Obama, First Families, First Ladies, First Ladies & Ancestral Identity, History, Politics, Presidents, The Obamas

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5 replies »

  1. Calvin Coolidge was our first president to acknowledge Native American ancestors. Back in his day we would have said he had, “Indian blood.” This connection is detailed in his 1929 Autobiography.
    There are sources that suggest his mother – Victoria Josephene Moor – was of African descent. “Moor” There’s a lot of deep scholarshit out there.

    • I had remembered that Jim but never knew whether it was anecdotal or passed down as family lore or if it had been documented. One finds that so much emphasis is often placed on a surname that the paternal side is all that is considered – when of course we all have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents, etc. and each line is as valid as the other. Thanks for adding that bit of Coolidge ancestral history.

  2. Henry Adams, at the beginning of the 20th century in his ‘Mont St. Michel et Chartres’, surmised that, if you calculated the perhaps 30 generations between the Norman Conquest and our own time you would find that, if you have any English in you at all, you would have had about 250 million arithmetical ancestors living in 11th century England–an impossibility because there were only perhaps 5 million people there at the time, which makes a lot of us related to just about everybody. Which proves the point you make above about the paternal business! One of the things I like about your scholarship, Carl, is the thoroughness with which you examine political figures and their public and private contexts, not treating them as stereotypes and wooden figures but as the real people they were and are. This is refreshing for us all.

    • Thank you so much for your observation about the work. I think journalism training, in terms of fairness, truth, even-handedness and making sure one has documentation before assessing a human life, famous or otherwise, is actually helpful in thinking through the rest of life – beyond writing.

      • That’s a really interesting observation about journalism. My sister was in journalism for some years, before moving to other and very different pursuits. I must ask her if she feels the experience and various disciplines involved in journalism have affected her thinking, especially in terms of other types of life issues and work in the world, and within ourselves. You’ve given me something really intriguing to think about.


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