|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
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.
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.”
In 1870, three of Melvinia’s four children, including Dolphus, were listed on the census as mulatto. One was born four years after emancipation, suggesting that the liaison that produced those children endured after slavery. She gave her children the Shields name, which may have hinted at their paternity or simply been the custom of former slaves taking their master’s surnames.