Michelle Obama’s Slave Roots Traced

First Lady Michelle Obama

Research conducted by a genealogist named Megan Smolenyak and the New York Times has succeeded in tracing First Lady Michelle Obama’s lineage back to her slave ancestors, it was announced this week.

On her mother’s side of the family, researchers were able to identify a number of ex-slaves in the First Lady’s past, including one of her third great grandparents, Melvinia Shields, who was born a slave in South Carolina in the 1840s.

Shields had a son named Dolphus (one of Ms. Obama’s second great grandfathers), allegedly by an unknown white man, thus suggesting the First Lady has a mixed racial heritage.  Ms. Obama is also thought to have some Native American ancestry.

Edward Ball, whose memoir Slaves in the Family is highly regarded, suggests the First Lady’s multi-racial ancestry is probably more common than we realize.  “We are not separate tribes of Latinos and whites and blacks in America,” he states.  “We’ve all mingled, and we have done so for generations.”

If you’re an African American interested in tracing your ancestry, Greensboro Public Library has lots of resources which can help.

First of all, we have a full-time genealogy specialist, Mr. Arthur Erickson, who will be happy to meet with you, assist you in planning your research, and tell you all about the Library’s genealogy collection.

If your roots are in Greensboro, you may also want to take a look at some of our webpages on African American genealogy.  These include a list of African American households in Greensboro when the 1880 Census was compiled, a long article on the Warnersville community, and headstone transcriptions for Union Cemetery.

Other resources we have specific to African American research include the Freedman’s Bank records in Heritage Quest, and the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules from the U.S. Census. 

You will also no doubt find the population schedules from the U.S. Census, especially those from 1870-1930, particularly useful.  You can access these through Ancestry (in-library use only), as well as Heritage Quest, though you will find the Ancestry database to be more complete and easier to use.

Lots of other records in our collection, such as marriages, wills, and deeds, will no doubt prove useful in your search. 

Last but not least, if your focus is local you may want to try contacting the Piedmont-Triad Chapter of the Afro-American Historical Society.

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