Slavery to the White House in 5 Generations

Blogging the Beltway: Author Rachel L. Swarns traces Mrs. Obama's sweeping genealogy in her new book.

White House Flickr stream
White House Flickr stream

(The Root) — In her new book, American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, Rachel L. Swarns digs up the first lady’s family roots. Throughout the meticulously researched tome, Swarns, a New York Times correspondent, uncovers a diverse history that Mrs. Obama hadn’t even known herself — including the stories of her great-great-great-grandmother Melvinia Shields, an enslaved girl who, at 8 years of age, was sent from South Carolina to toil in northern-Georgia fields; her biracial great-great-grandfather Dolphus Shields, who was born into slavery and worked as a carpenter after emancipation; and the Jumper family, mixed-race ancestors who lived free in Virginia decades before the Civil War.

Swarns spoke with The Root about what struck her most about the project, her extensive research process and what she hopes readers will take away from learning about a family that went from slavery to the White House in five generations.

The Root: As you started working on your book, did you approach the first lady and her immediate family about their participation?

Rachel L. Swarns: Mrs. Obama has a policy of not doing book interviews, so unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to interview her. But I did interview members of her family — an aunt, an uncle, a great-aunt, a great-uncle, first cousins and more distant cousins who were really helpful in illuminating the lives of some of the first lady’s ancestors. I briefed her staff during the process, and I sent her and her staff books before publication. I don’t know [their reaction], but I hope they find it fascinating.

TR: What kinds of research did you do to find these ancestors and their stories?

RLS: It was quite an undertaking. [Laughs.] I spent a lot of time in archives around the country, in libraries, and I talked to as many people as I could who knew members of her family and who knew stories about them. The book kind of focuses on her grandparents and as far back as I could take the family.

The challenge you have with African Americans is that, during the slavery period, they just didn’t appear in the census with names until 1870. So unless they were listed as property in a will or as inventory for an estate, they almost don’t exist. White people, though, appeared in the census. With her white ancestors, I can go back a bit into the late 1700s.

I also used DNA testing. I knew that the first lady’s great-great-grandfather was Dolphus Shields, who was Melvinia’s son and born into slavery. I suspected that his father, who was a white man, was a member of the family that owned him and his mother, Melvinia. I found as many of Dolphus’ descendants as I could, and then as many of the slave owners’ descendants as I could. I tested them, and the families were related.

TR: What was your most surprising discovery about the first lady’s ancestors?