A Family Tree Rooted In American Soil

Michelle Obama Learns About Her Slave Ancestors, Herself and Her Country

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.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008; Page C01


The old plantation where Michelle Obama's great-great-grandfather lived is tucked behind the tire stores and veterinary clinics of U.S. Highway 521. But its history and grounds have been meticulously preserved, down to the dikes that once controlled the flow of water into its expansive rice fields.

Not much is known about Jim Robinson, however, including how or when he came to Friendfield, as the property is still called. But records show he was born around 1850 and lived, at least until the Civil War, as a slave. His family believes that he remained a Friendfield worker all his life and that he was buried at the place, in an unmarked grave.

Until she reconnected with relatives here in January on a campaign trip, Obama did not know much about her ancestry, or even that Friendfield existed. As she was growing up in Chicago, her parents did not talk about the family's history, and the young Michelle Robinson didn't ask many questions.

But if her husband is elected president in November, he will not be the only one in the family making history. While Barack Obama's provenance -- his black Kenyan father, white Kansas-born mother and Hawaiian childhood -- has been celebrated as a uniquely American example of multicultural identity, Michelle Obama's family history -- from slavery to Reconstruction to the Great Migration north -- connects her to the essence of the African American experience.

To Rep. James E. Clyburn (D), whose district includes part of Georgetown County, the possibility that a descendant of slaves could be first lady is just as momentous as the prospect of a black man as president. "I believe she could play as pivotal a role as her husband could, if not more so. It would allow us an opportunity to get beyond some of our preconceived notions, some of our prejudices," he said.

Those who have studied African American history believe Michelle Obama's prominence could help bring to light the complexities of what Southern whites once called the "peculiar institution," now regarded as an indelible stain on the American conscience.

"It's good to be a part of playing out history in this way," Obama said in an interview at the campaign's Chicago headquarters. "It could be anybody. But it's us, it's our family, it's that story, that's going to play a part in telling a bigger story."

It is a process, she continued, of "uncovering the shame, digging out the pride that is part of that story -- so that other folks feel comfortable about embracing the beauty and the tangled nature of the history of this country."

Early this year, before Obama traveled to Georgetown to help her husband in the South Carolina primary, campaign aides began to interview her relatives and scour genealogical records, not sure of what they would discover. Later they enlisted help from historians to produce a detailed Robinson family tree.

Sheryll Cashin, a Georgetown University law professor and author of a book about her own Alabama family, says that for African Americans, there is nothing unique about the Robinson family. "I would venture to say that this is not an extraordinary story," said Cashin, a friend of Obama's. "It's an extraordinary story because it's been unearthed."

The Obama campaign agreed to cooperate for this article, as did Robinson family members who live in Georgetown and had previously declined all interview requests. Many had known parts of their family history but not the full odyssey, including details unearthed by The Washington Post in its own inquiries.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company