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The varied branches of a family tree

Michelle Obama's heritage was the focus of one genealogist's intense

October 11, 2009|Katherine Skiba

WASHINGTON — Are you named Davis, Easley or Humphrey?

Or Johnson, Jumper, Laws, McGruder, Morehead or Moten?

Or Robinson, Shields, Thornton, Tinsley or Wade?

If so, you may be a distant cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama, whose family tree features a young slave girl from South Carolina -- once sold for $475 -- who appears to have borne children in the mid-to-late 1800s with an Irish American named Shields. The two could be among Mrs. Obama's great-great-great maternal grandparents.

Those are among key findings by genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who spent nine months researching the first lady's family tree in conjunction with the New York Times. The newspaper's story was published Wednesday.

According to Smolenyak, it's not uncommon for African Americans to have bloodlines that are 20% to 40% European -- and the country's first black presidential spouse also is likely to have had Native American ancestors.

Smolenyak is president of RootsTelevision.com. The website carries a 21-minute presentation on the findings, compiled from books, websites, news articles, birth, marriage, death and probate records, agricultural surveys, census records and other data.

She began working on Michelle Obama's roots at the Times' request before Barack Obama's inauguration. Smolenyak said her own mother, like Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, carried the surname Shields, and an "instant affinity" propelled her interest.

The first lady's ancestors lived in places including Illinois, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia. Many were part of the great migration that saw blacks leave the South for the industrialized North.

It was the 6-year-old slave, Melvinia Shields, bequeathed in her master's will and later sold for $475, who tugged at the genealogist's heartstrings.

"It's still jarring to see dollar signs associated with human beings," said Smolenyak, who lives in Haddonfield, N.J.

She has written books including "Trace Your Roots with DNA," but is not planning to ask Michelle Obama to sit for a blood test.

"I, for one, am not going to ask for DNA samples from the first family," she said. Despite the legacy of slavery's evils, she hopes her findings bring them a smile.

"The vast majority of people are happy when their heritage is just kind of handed to them," Smolenyak said. "She's got a really rich ancestry. This would be my fantasy: that she's clicking [on the website] through all the branches of her family tree, sitting there with Sasha and Malia and Marian Robinson, and I hope they're pleased."

Michelle Obama's office had no comment.

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kskiba@latimes.com

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