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Michelle Obama

Chicago Beginnings

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama's presence in the White House is historic. A hundred years from now, scholars and school children will still be studying the flurry of firsts associated with her. Her husband Barack Obama is our country's first African American president, but Michelle, along with her mother Marian and daughters, are the first descendants of slaves to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as members of the first family. This is brief introduction to their ancestral past. It's the mixing of African, European and Native American blood. Their family history is that of the American South and the Great Migration. Many of their forebears were enslaved, but some were free long before Emancipation. Their story, in short, is remarkably universal and quintessentially American, and I suspect many will occasionally catch glimpses of their own families in what follows.

By Chicago standards, January 17, 1964 was less frigid than it could have been. Windy as expected, but partly sunny, temperatures would reach about 40 degrees that Friday. But that was the last thing on the minds of Fraser and Marian Robinson as they welcomed their daughter, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, into their lives.

Fraser and Marian were both Chicago natives, born almost exactly two years apart in the city they would call home until Marian would eventually join Michelle in the White House -- a scenario that probably seemed less likely at the time than the notion of recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. They had married in October 1960 and become parents for the first time in April 1962, so Michelle was also greeted by big brother Craig, whom she would one day describe as "my mentor, my protector, and my lifelong friend."

On the surface, the world seemed a more innocent place in 1964. The Beatles hit the Billboard Chart for the first time the day after Michelle was born with a song called "I Want to Hold Your Hand," Julie Andrews won the Best Actress Oscar for her singing nanny role in Mary Poppins, and the Easy-Bake Oven (soon to be a favourite of Michelle's) was introduced. And all things considered, life was indeed going well for the Robinson family.

Michelle's arrival capped perhaps one of the most memorable weeks in their lives as Fraser had just obtained a job as a "station laborer" for the city's water department three days earlier. Essentially a janitorial position, it offered security, opportunity for advancement, and a salary of $5,748. At the time, only nine percent of Chicago's African American families earned $10,000 or more a year, a pay level that Fraser would attain by 1969 through a series of promotions. Soon to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Fraser would have even more reason to value his new position, but for the purposes of his young family, what mattered most is that his income was sufficient to support them all. Marian had the option and chose to be a stay-at-home mother.

With Michelle's birth, the Robinsons became a nuclear family of four and would remain so, but scattered around Chicago that day were four grandparents and one great-grandmother for the newborn. Of these five elders, only one -- the grandmother from whom Michelle would inherit her distinctive middle name of LaVaughn -- had also been born in Chicago. Like Michelle, LaVaughn Delores Johnson Robinson could be a considered a consequence of the Great Migration. The others had begun their lives in Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia and were part of it.

The Great Migration

The Great Migration was the mass exodus of millions of African Americans from southern states to industrialized cities in the North, mostly during the early decades of the twentieth century, and the reasons behind it were compelling. Discrimination and segregation were the norm across the country, but less pronounced and overt in the North than in the South where Jim Crow laws ensured a second class existence for African Americans and racially-motivated violence remained disturbingly commonplace. Mother Nature contributed with the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and a seemingly unstoppable boll weevil infestation that marched steadily through the cotton-growing states, both of which forced countless agricultural workers -- many of whom might have preferred to stay in their hometowns -- off the land. Once that happened, work options in the predominantly rural South were limited at best.

If this potent combination of forces was the push factor for the Great Migration, the pull side of the equation came from economic circumstances in the North, trumpeted by several black newspapers, but most aggressively by the Chicago Defender. World War I created new job opportunities just as the United States began tinkering with its immigration policy to restrict the profusion of arrivals considered to be less desirable, such as those of Southern or Eastern European origin. The squelching of this cheap labor pool prompted some industries that had once been closed to African Americans to open their doors, even if reluctantly so.

America entered World War I on April 6, 1917 in the midst of the Chicago Defender's call for a "Great Northern Drive." Though much of the focus was on a single day -- May 15, 1917 -- the initiative was on-going. Launched in 1905, the Defender was the most influential black newspaper in the U.S. by the time of the war. Perhaps it was appropriate that a paper that railed so loudly against racial injustice should also largely be distributed by rail with the help of black Pullman porters and others who traveled frequently, such as entertainers. This unconventional but effective system resulted in a readership that spread throughout the South. In fact, around the time of the Great Northern Drive, two-thirds of its readers resided outside of Chicago. The pass-along rate was impressively high and it was not unusual for the latest issue to be read out loud at churches, barber shops and other gatherings.

In addition to encouraging members of "the Race" -- the Defender's preferred designation for African Americans -- to move to northern cities, the newspaper facilitated the process by providing train schedules, job openings, apartment listings and other practical information. Names of churches and other organizations willing to help migrants were also published, resulting in floods of appeals for assistance such as that of Cleveland Gaillard of Mobile, Alabama to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Chicago. In April 1917, after five months of unemployment, he pleaded, "I can fill the positions as a porter in a grocery store or run an elevator or drive a team or do most anything . . . please help me to get up there please and get me a position please and I will pay you the expense back when I get up there . . ."

In some respects, the drive was similar to earlier immigration-promotion schemes used to attract inexpensive workers from abroad to build railroads, mine coal, and perform other dirty and dangerous jobs, but it differed considerably in its intentions. Yes, the meatpacking, steel and other industries would benefit, but so would the migrants, and much thought was given to helping them adjust and settle in their new environment.

The benevolent underpinning of this campaign invites comparison to the Underground Railroad, the network that had developed in the previous century to help slaves escape to free states and Canada, but the ability to operate openly translated into an entirely new scale. Whereas thousands had gained their freedom through the Underground Railroad, the Great Migration ultimately brought about seven million people to the North. Of this, Chicago attracted an estimated half million with the result that its African American population would surge from roughly two to 33 percent by 1970.

Though the fabled North undoubtedly provided many migrants with previously unimagined possibilities, all was not rosy by the time of Michelle's birth. With the massive influx into Chicago came change, and as always in the course of human history, there were plenty who resented and resisted it. The first of Michelle's ancestors had arrived in Chicago almost 60 years earlier, but headlines in the Defender the day after her birth made it clear that the crusade for civil rights was still very much a work in progress. Her practical, disciplined family would provide something of a protective bubble for Michelle, but swirling just outside the door was a world of social upheaval.

One article entitled "School Boycotts Sweep U.S." declared that "The Freedom Struggle has now been transferred to the schools of America," and informed readers that "225,000 school pupils, the majority Negro, stayed out of school to register their protest against their segregated school system and inferior education." Another recounted the success of a boycott of stores in Chicago's downtown Loop area. Called the "Stop, Don't Shop Campaign," organizers said it would continue "until the Chicago schools are integrated." Still another spoke of opposition to a proposal for an integrated housing project in what was the then almost all-white South Side area -- a harbinger of events to come. By 1970, Michelle's family would move to the South Shore portion of South Side, and by 1980, the white flight to the suburbs was so intense that the neighbourhood would become 96 percent African American.

Perhaps more revealing than the headlines of the day were the opinion pieces which reflected the mood of those weary from the never-ending struggle for equal rights. A reader named Joseph Watkins shared his thoughts on Kennedy's assassination. "It's not yet clear whether John F. Kennedy's death had brought a change of heart in white people," he wrote. "A death as significant as this great President's should change men from bigots all over the country. Are we sure that the murder of President Kennedy was not also the murder of the Negro's rights?"

Commenting about the recent bestowal of Presidential Medals of Freedom on renowned singer Marian Anderson and Dr. Ralph Bunche, noted diplomat and first African American winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, columnist Al Duckett offered advice to help Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, who had just delivered his stirring "I Have a Dream" speech the previous August, avoid being overlooked in the future. Relating the remarks of a character dubbed "Big Mouth," he observed that singers and world-travellers apparently had the desired credentials, so the conclusion was obvious: "If Dr. King would learn to sing and not keep going to them nearby foreign countries like Bam, Sip and GA, he might get one of them Freedom Medals too."

The Great Mixing

Among the half million African Americans who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration were a number of Michelle's relatives, and they hailed from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and the southern part of Illinois. In fact, of all the southern states, only Florida, Arkansas and Texas did not hold a piece of her family's past.

In a sense, the Great Migration could also be considered a "great mixing," and Michelle's ancestry includes as much diversity as anyone's. With the exception of individuals of recent African or Caribbean origin, most African Americans have deep roots in America extending back several centuries. Enslaved Africans were brought to America as early as the 1620s and almost all were here by 1825, so family trees typically reach back 200-400 years on this continent. In spite of this, by the time the Great Migration began, there were still pockets of what might be termed African homogeneity in the South.

It's a harsh reality that some slave traders and owners had regional preferences. For instance, many in South Carolina and Georgia preferred slaves from the rice-growing region of West Africa (roughly the coastal area stretching from Senegal down to Liberia) because they were regarded as being better suited to the climate and work, as well as more resistant to malaria. As a result, it was possible for the majority of slaves associated with a particular plantation or locality to have roots that would, if we had the means to follow the trail, trace mostly back to present-day Sierre Leone, for example (DNA testing now provides at least some prospects in this regard.). When the descendants of these somewhat insular communities joined the steady stream of traffic heading north, it was inevitable that they would meet, mingle and marry people from other states who sported different backgrounds -- and that's before factoring in the white and Native ancestry many also carried. Consequently, the Great Migration produced a considerable mixing of everything from traditions to gene pools.

Michelle is very much a legacy of both the Great Migration and the inherent mixing that accompanied it. In fact, it's almost as if an unseen force reached down with impressive regularity -- at the rate of a branch of her family tree per decade -- to scoop up another eventual ancestor from the South to bring to Chicago. It also happened to be a ladies-first situation with her future grandmothers' families leading the way.

The parents and half dozen older siblings of LaVaughn Delores Johnson, Michelle's paternal grandmother, were the Chicago pioneers, arriving in the first decade of the twentieth century and bringing with them a mélange of Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee roots. Her mother's family had resided in Illinois (though not Chicago) since the 1860s, while her father spent his early days in Louisiana and Mississippi. Second on the scene was her maternal grandmother, Rebecca Jumper. Virginia-born, but taken to North Carolina as an infant, Rebecca was sent North in the 1910s to be raised by an aunt and uncle.

Next up was maternal grandfather Purnell Shields who came from Birmingham, Alabama with his mother, sister and step-father in the 1920s. His mother Annie was the only great-grandparent Michelle would actually know, and Michelle and her family would eventually live in the second floor apartment of the home owned by Robbie Lee, Purnell's sister. Though this family came from Alabama, their heritage extended back through Georgia and ultimately to South Carolina and Virginia. Bringing up the rear of this decade-by-decade migration was Fraser Robinson, the grandfather whose surname would become Michelle's maiden name. Born and raised in South Carolina, Fraser made his appearance in Chicago in the early 1930s. Last to arrive, he was also the only one to return to the place of his birth, retiring to his hometown after 40 years of cold winters.

The merging of these assorted branches came about through the marriages of LaVaughn to Fraser and Rebecca to Purnell -- and of their children, Fraser III and Marian, some decades later -- but each limb of Michelle's family tree arrived in Chicago with its own past and created a bit of history there before Michelle was born. What follows is a brief introduction to the cast of ancestors who would unknowingly bequeath not only their DNA, but also a combination of their habits, beliefs, aptitudes and hopes to a future First Lady.

LaVaughn Johnson

Of Michelle's grandparents, LaVaughn Johnson was the most like her. A native Chicagoan, she was an early product of the mixing effect of the Great Migration with parents of radically different histories. Like many who eventually settled in Chicago, her family's itinerary included a stopover in St. Louis, Missouri where her oldest three brothers were born, but by 1910, the Johnsons were ensconced in the Windy City. LaVaughn was born in 1915, around the middle of at least 11 children. While a family of that size would probably get its own reality show today, at the time, they would have been just another large brood.

As their wanderings suggest, LaVaughn's parents were the adventurous type who were willing to move for new opportunities. Her father, James Preston Johnson, was the most nomadic of Michelle's ancestors, starting out in Louisiana in a town near the Mississippi border, and meandering his way north. Over the years, he tried on a variety of occupations including cobbler (a trade he passed on to several of his sons), Pullman porter, and Baptist pastor, and it was likely work prospects that motivated some of his moves.

His travels would eventually take him to Illinois where he married Phoebe Moten. Though only 20 years old, Phoebe had already been married before, having wed and lost her first husband in a span of less than six months. The baby of her family, she was born and raised in Villa Ridge, Illinois to parents who settled there in the 1860s after living in Kentucky and Missouri. That Phoebe was well-loved by LaVaughn and her other children can be seen from the fact that she's one of very few of Michelle's ancestors who has a tombstone. Simple, with just her name, years of birth and death, and the word "mother," the stone sits oddly isolated today, though well-maintained and surrounded by manicured grass.

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The last born of Michelle's grandparents, LaVaughn lived until 2002. She married Fraser Robinson Jnr. in 1934 and had two children -- Fraser III and Nomenee -- in short order (with more to follow later, including a son who sadly died as an infant and was buried at the now notorious Burr Oak Cemetery).

LaVaughn and Fraser were clearly the kind of parents who had high expectations of their children. In 1923, the Chicago Defender created the Bud Billiken Club to promote the betterment of African American children in Chicago by encouraging pride and celebrating values and qualities such as health, scholarship, and a strong work ethic. Thousands of children enrolled and had their names published in the paper, among them some of Michelle's relatives. But the Robinsons took it a step further, signing up Michelle's father, Fraser III, as a member of a Billiken branch club called the "Willing Workers" before his second birthday.

The club spawned the well-known Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, now the second largest parade in the country. Little did then-toddler Fraser know that his future son-in-law, Barack Obama, would serve as Grand Marshal 70 years after his hopeful parents had enlisted him.

Fraser C. Robinson  

It's providential for Michelle's sake that LaVaughn ever met Fraser C. Robinson, Jr. because he would have much preferred to never leave the South. "Bird of passage" is a term used to refer to an immigrant who never intended to remain in America. Rather, these were typically men who came here planning to earn enough money to go home and be the richest man in the village. While that might have an opportunistic tinge to it, underlying these intentions was simply a strong attachment to home. These were individuals who loved the place of their birth and the extended families that nurtured them there. Consequently, round trips were a key element of their lives. Though he was a migrant rather than an immigrant, this term applies to Fraser.

Georgetown, South Carolina was the center of his universe. Little wonder, given that the Robinsons had been living there for generations. Although it's doubtful he would have chosen to do so, he could have wandered down the road to see the slave cabins (still standing today) on the land where his grandfather Jim Robinson once toiled. But his father, Fraser Sr., a one-armed kiln operator, had taught himself to read and succeeded in carving out a decent living for his family.

The oldest of ten children born to Fraser and Rosella, Fraser Jr. was the proverbial big fish in a small pond where he came from. Widely regarded as a gifted student and speaker, he might have had greater opportunities in life had he not reached the brink of adulthood just as the Great Depression hit. He tried his best to make it in Georgetown working for a local lumber plant, but when it closed in 1932, his prospects diminished considerably. For Fraser, the Great Depression would become the reason for his participation in the Great Migration.

Though many from the Carolinas found themselves drawn up the East Coast to New York or Philadelphia, Fraser opted for Chicago for the company of fellow Georgetowners who made it their second home. He was particularly close with the Funnye family, headed by a widow who also hailed from Georgetown. Her four children joined the same Ben Billiken branch as the oldest son Fraser had upon marrying LaVaughn, and perhaps because the link to home meant so much to him, he helped ensure that the Funnyes actually became family when he introduced his kid sister Vernelle to the widow's youngest son, Capers. They married and had a son, Capers C. Funnye, Jr., who probably surprised his South Carolina elders when he grew up to become a well-known rabbi. But then again, Georgetown is home to the second oldest community of Jews in South Carolina with a presence extending back to at least the 1760s, and Fraser's own mother was born a Cohen with rumors of a Jewish ancestor or owner in her past.

For employment, Fraser worked for the WPA during the Depression and later enlisted for a three-year stint with the Army. After this, he settled into a job with the U.S. Postal Service, where he would remain for 30 years until his retirement in 1974.

At that point, after roughly four decades in Chicago, he finally returned to Georgetown to live out the remainder of his years. This longed-for homecoming for Fraser triggered the visits to South Carolina that Michelle would later recall punctuating her youth.

Rebecca Jumper

Michelle's maternal grandmother, Rebecca Jumper, did an admirable job of keeping her past a secret, but that's probably because she didn't know much about it herself. That's unfortunate, because hers is an intriguing history, some of which can be traced back the 1700s. Like LaVaughn, Rebecca was the baby of her family, the youngest of Jim and Eliza Jumper's children. She was born in Virginia, and whether she knew it or not, had a solid wall of Southern Virginia ancestry.

Many don't realize that approximately ten percent of African-Americans were free before Emancipation, and Rebecca's Jumper ancestors were among them. Because of that, it's possible to march back through the generations to her great-grandparents, Peter and Dolly, and their children, Peter, Syrena, Nicy, Richard, Puss, Molly, John and Kitty.

 

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The name Jumper itself is interesting because the family is believed to descend from a woman named Hagar Jumper who managed to obtain her freedom around 1800 on the basis of her Indian heritage. In fact, the earliest known mention of the name pertains to a Tuscarora Indian named Tom, and dates to 1707, though the connection between Hagar and Tom is uncertain.

All of this would have been news to Rebecca, though, as her family moved to North Carolina by the time she reached her first birthday. But that was minor compared to what happened next. Before long, she was sent to live in Chicago to be raised by a childless aunt and uncle. While this might strike us as odd today, child-shipping was a pronounced feature of the Great Migration. As members of an extended family spread out to different locations, all were expected to pitch in and help each other, and child care was frequently a component. If young parents ventured to a northern city, they often left their children behind with Grandma until they got settled, and the reverse was also true. If a portion of the family that stayed in the South was struggling -- if someone died, lost a job, was widowed or otherwise struck with bad luck -- a shuffling of children would often ensue. Of course, in some cases, it was simply a matter that the family concluded that life in the North offered better prospects (such as a good education) for a child.

Rebecca was parceled off to her maternal aunt Carrie and her husband John Coleman while she was still very young. As a result, although she had been born into a family of at least eight children, she was raised as an only child, and it's clear that she regarded the Colemans as her parents. She not only assumed their surname, but also dutifully wrote their names when requested to list her parents in official paperwork.

Rebecca's uncle/father proved injury-prone with medical woes ranging from a bullet in the wrist to a fall that occurred while working for the WPA and left him using a cane. Perhaps it was tending to him that led Rebecca to become a practical nurse, but not before she married Purnell Shields. Among the children she and Purnell had was a daughter named Marian who would one day become known as the "First Grandma."

Purnell Shields

 

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Obituary of Dolphus T. Shields, great-great-grandfather of Michelle Obama

 

Like his future wife, Michelle's maternal grandfather, Purnell Nathaniel Shields, arrived in Chicago as a youngster. He was the second of three children born in Birmingham, Alabama to Robert Lee and Annie Shields, but before his tenth birthday, both his father and younger sister would be out of his life. In the early 1920s, his mother Annie married a man named Frank Coleman and joined the northward trek, bringing her remaining children with her.

Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Purnell was a carpenter, but finding difficulty securing construction jobs, he spent much of his life churning through an impressive array of positions including laborer in a syrup factory, turntable engineer for the Northwestern Railroad (that is, one of the fellows who changed the directions of trains to make return journeys), relief worker for the city, garment worker, and building decorator.

Even though Purnell's father, Robert, was a bit of a mystery man, more is known about the Shields branch of Michelle's family tree than any other. Robert's father, Dolphus Theodore (or D.T. as he preferred to be called), was married four times (partly because he outlived several wives). Robert was D.T.'s third child from his first marriage to Alice Easley. He would also be the last one born in Georgia before the family moved to Birmingham.

D.T.'s mother, in turn, had begun her life in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Born into slavery, Melvina was sent south to Georgia upon the death of her first owner, David Patterson. Shocking as it sounds to us today, his estate assigned her a price tag of $475 and doled her out to David's daughter, Christianna Shields, to help ensure that all of his children would receive an inheritance of roughly equal value. It was in Georgia that she encountered the white man who would father at least four of her children, including Dolphus.

In spite of his white father, Dolphus was also born into slavery. Like his mother who lived nearly a century, he enjoyed a generous life span of 91 years -- long enough to witness the initial stages of desegregation and just 14 years shy of Michelle's birth. Known to be an optimist in matters of race, D.T. lived in hopeful expectation, but even today, it's stunning to think that the life of this one-time slave overlapped with that of his great-granddaughter, Marian, who now resides in the White House.

Megan Smolenyak


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