New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns traced Michelle Obama’s family history in her new book, American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, and made some fascinating discoveries about the First Lady’s ancestry. Swarns calls the story, which stretches all the way back to the Revolutionary War, “very American.”
"There is this real fascination with family history, with genealogy, with DNA testing," Swarns says. "I think the First Lady has always had some curiosity about her own family tree."
The story of Michelle Obama’s ancestry is a perfect illustration of America’s complex melting pot reputation. Swarns spent two years tracing Obama’s family history, examining DNA from both her white and black ancestors and tracing their history back to the Revolutionary War.
Some of the First Lady’s family is Irish-American, Swarns says, and immigrated to the States in hopes of creating a better life. She now has a network of distant Caucasian cousins who live in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Texas who had no idea they were related to one of the most famous women in the country, or that their relatives had owned slaves.
Obama’s great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia Shields, was a slave, owned by the ancestors of a woman named Joan Tribble. Swarns research discovered that when Shields was just 15 years old, she became pregnant by the 20-year-old son of her white owner. That bi-racial son, Dolphus T. Shields, became the First Lady’s maternal great-great grandfather.
The Tribble family is understandably uncomfortable with their slave-owning past, but they’re doing their best to move on. “I can’t really change anything,” said Joan Tribble, “but I can be open-minded to people and accept them and hope they’ll accept me.” She hopes someday to meet Mrs. Obama.
The First Lady’s family is similarly tight-lipped about their history. She declined to comment on the story to The New York Times, as did her mother and brother. Other African-American members of her extended family also said that the subjects of slavery and the origins of the family’s white ancestry were not discussed in the family.
Difficult though the subject may be, the members of Michelle Obama’s multicultural extended family had the opportunity to meet for the first at a memorial dedicated to one of her ancestors in Georgia. "For some people, it was not an easy thing to go back into the history," Swarns says. "But there [were those] who were willing to take on this history, and, black and white, they were willing to talk about it. It was fascinating to see."
To trace your own family history you could use a popular genealogy service like Ancestry.com. To find out more about this service please check out our Ancestry review.