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A Family Tree Rooted In American Soil

Michelle Obama's great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, worked as a slave on the Friendfield Plantation in Georgetown, S.C. Many of the slave quarters on the plantation still stand untouched and alone on the property.

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Obama said that what she has learned about her family has helped her understand more about her upbringing as well as the scars of slavery that many African Americans still bear.

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"A lot of times these stories get buried, because sometimes the pain of them makes it hard to want to remember," she said. "You've got to be able to acknowledge and understand the past and move on from it. You have to understand it, and I think a lot of us just don't have an opportunity to understand it -- but it's there."

South Carolina Roots

Most Sunday evenings during her childhood, Michelle Robinson and her parents, Marian and Fraser Robinson III, visited her grandparents at their house nearby. Michelle's father was born in Chicago and spent his career working for the city, tending the boilers at a water-filtration plant. But her grandfather, Fraser Jr., often reminisced about his South Carolina childhood. The little girl listened and tried to read between the lines.

Fraser Robinson Jr.'s trek north to Chicago was one that millions of Southern blacks took over several generations, altering the racial landscape on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. But the move did not deliver on its promise. Robinson landed a dull but reliable Postal Service job. By the time Michelle's parents were married, Robinson and his wife, LaVaughn, were living in a cinderblock apartment in a public housing project -- a tidy complex, as Michelle remembers it, but humble compared with the house that her grandfather's father, Fraser Sr., had built in South Carolina.

"He was a very proud man. He was proud of his lineage," Obama recalled. However, she added, "there was a discontent about him."

No one in the family was surprised when the couple moved to Georgetown after they retired. Fraser and LaVaughn Robinson joined Bethel AME Church, where the Robinson family had worshiped since the turn of the century. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at a local veterans hall with Robinson cousins and old school friends.

Starting when she was 10 years old, Obama was a regular visitor to Georgetown. She remembers the crickets that kept her awake at night and the fresh venison that made her ill. She passed countless times by the Friendfield gate but never noticed the dirt road, much less where it led. For a family that otherwise loved to engage, "we didn't talk about that," she said.

An hour northeast of Charleston in the Low Country region, Georgetown County was settled in early Colonial days. By the mid-1800s, thousands of slaves worked its snake- and mosquito-infested riverfront fields, producing half of the rice consumed in the United States.

Friendfield thrived for a century as a productive plantation, but its fortunes collapsed after the Civil War. The rice mill burned, the grand house was looted, and smallpox ravaged white and black households alike. Many of Friendfield's former slaves continued to live on the property as sharecroppers, in a community known as the Hill that included a church and a clinic.

One Friendfield worker during this period is believed to have been Jim Robinson. He appears in the 1880 Census, recorded as an illiterate farmhand living in close proximity to the plantation's white owners. He was married with a 3-year-old son, Gabriel. A second son, Fraser, Michelle Obama's great-grandfather, was born in 1884.

Gabriel Robinson's daughter Carrie Nelson, now 80, is the oldest living Robinson and the keeper of family lore. Before Obama's January visit, Obama cousins Connie Jones and Harolyn Siau called on Carrie to help piece together the family history.

Seated in an easy chair in the living room of her small ranch-style house, Nelson relied on a tattered family Bible and a long and lively memory to reconstruct the final days at Friendfield, recalling stories her father had told her as a girl. Jones, who grew up in town but remained close to her country cousins, listened raptly from the sofa, interjecting with "Really?" and "I never knew," as Nelson's family narrative unfolded.


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