Dawn Turner Trice
June 18, 2012
Many Americans are fascinated by the family history of Michelle Obama, a descendant of slaves who is the nation's first African-American first lady.
You've learned a lot about her ancestry in this newspaper. Now, add to that a new book due out Tuesday, "American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama."
I recently talked to author Rachel L. Swarns, 44, a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for the New York Times. Here's an edited version of our conversation:
Q: You really seemed to admire Phoebe Moten Johnson, Obama's paternal great-grandmother. She was born Dec. 17, 1879, and grew up in Villa Ridge, a small town in southern Illinois. Before she turned 20 she hopped a train heading north. She eventually lands in Chicago as part of the first wave of the Great Migration. She had no money, no property, no husband. Tell us more about her.
A: There are many fascinating people in Michelle Obama's family tree. But I was really moved by Phoebe's story. I remember sitting in the archives in southern Illinois, and there was a map, and I realized how far it was from Villa Ridge to Jackson County, where she got married. She was so young. And I thought, "Oh my goodness, she was moving as soon as she could." It was the late 1800s and early 1900s where there were many obstacles confronting a young African-American woman who had lost both of her parents. She appeared to have a vision of a life for herself that was quite different from the one people might have assumed that she might have expected.
Q: Years later, Phoebe's family lives in various neighborhoods around Chicago — and later in Evanston, which seemed like heaven compared to Chicago. One thing that struck me was that she worked really hard to shield her children from the racism of the day. Two of her sons were wildly successful. Do you think it was because she shielded them?
A: Secrecy and shame regarding slavery and race intermingling are major themes within this family. In fact, (parents) told their children they wanted them to move forward and the (parents) didn't share the hardest things they experienced. Several of Obama's relatives told me that (their ancestors) didn't want their children to be burdened by the past. In some ways maybe it did help. But it also made it in some ways harder for them to look back and understand their history.
Q: Fast-forwarding a generation, each of Michelle Obama's grandparents had his or her own compelling story about arriving in the city and learning it wasn't the Promised Land. Purnell "Southside" Shields, Obama's maternal grandfather, had such a strong presence. He came from Alabama and was drawn to Chicago's jazz scene. You write that he loved jazz so much that he blasted the music on speakers in rooms throughout his house, including the bathroom. But talk about Fraser Robinson II, Obama's paternal grandfather, who came from South Carolina.
A: Fraser Robinson II was the golden boy from the South who everyone had such high hopes for. Everyone I spoke to who knew him described him as such an intelligent man they thought could have done more.
Q: He loved words and language and aspired to use his math prowess as an electrical engineer. But his dreams weren't realized, and he became bitter.
A: He arrived in Chicago at such an unfortunate time. The Depression was hitting, and he struggled and couldn't find work to support his wife and children. (His relatives) believed that from the bits and pieces they could glean, he was a very proud man and didn't talk about his failed dreams.
Q: Fraser Robinson II and his wife, LaVaughn, split up, and he leaves Chicago to serve in World War II. When he returns, the couple lives apart for a few years. One of my favorite moments was their reconciliation. You write: "It was sometime around 1950; he walked through the front door, settled into a chair, and opened his newspaper as if he had never left."
A: The war, his children say, was enormously liberating. It was a place where his skills and talents were recognized, and this, I think, gave him something he'd been missing in Depression-era Chicago. He came back (from the war) and still couldn't do what he wanted as an electrical engineer. He worked for the post office, and it was a good stable job, but it wasn't what he really wanted. His son Nomenee (Robinson) said he never spoke about it. As a child, Francesca (the daughter born after the reconciliation) never knew her parents had been separated.
Q: Circumscribing these stories of the past is a present-day drama involving Jewell Barclay, an elderly black woman who lives in Cleveland, and Joan Tribble, an older white woman who lives outside Atlanta. They both took DNA tests. Barclay wanted to see if she's related to Obama's great-great-grandfather, Dolphus Shields, a former slave. And Tribble was hoping to learn if she's a descendant of slave owner Henry Wells Shields. Why do you think Tribble participated?
A: In the end, several members of the white Shields family agreed to do DNA testing. Several did it anonymously. At the end of the day, I think people were just curious. Joan wanted to know whether that was a part of her history. And she was open to what she would find out even if that meant confronting the possibility that one of her ancestors had raped a young girl.
Q: What does the diversity of Michelle Obama's family tree say about who we are as Americans today?
A: I really think it reflects our story as Americans, whether black or white or something in between. Many modern families have origins in slavery. I think that in Mrs. Obama's family, people in both black and white branches of her family tree took pains to distance themselves from that time. It is a painful period of American history. Now with genealogy and DNA testing and the passage of time, people are beginning to confront it by connecting to relatives across the color line. We're in a period where it's easier — though it's still not easy — to explore that and to get answers we need to complete our stories.
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