03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Michelle Obama Descended From Young Slave Girl and White Owner

A genealogist working with the New York Times has discovered a new page in the family history of First Lady Michelle Obama; her great-great-great grandmother, a teenage slave girl named Melvinia as young as 15 was impregnated by a white slave owner.

Genealogist Megan Smolenyak reconstructed this long-lost piece of the First Lady's family tree by using probate records, old photos and legal documents, and by interviewing senior citizens who remember the family of Melvinia's biracial son, Dolphus T. Shields (the Shields owned his young mother). Smoleynek said of the discovery: "Out of all of Michelle's roots, it is Melvinia who is screaming to be found."

Melvinia bore four children, three of whom were listed as 'mulatto.' It is doubtful that Melvinia's family tree will yield further results; on her death certificate the names of her parents are absent, listed by a relative as "don't know."

Melvinia's oldest son, the First Lady's great-great grandfather Dolphus, was said by those who remembered him to have been a light skinned, literate, church-going man. In an extraordinary linking of the past and future, Dolphus was heavily involved in the founding of two churches that figured in the history of the U.S. civil rights movement; he was co-founder of Trinity Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. and ran the Sunday school program at First Ebenezer Baptist Church of Birmingham.

"No one should be surprised anymore to hear about the number of rapes and the amount of sexual exploitation that took place under slavery; it was an everyday experience," said Jason A. Gillmer, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University who researches the history of slaves and their owners. But Dolphus' story gains a special resonance with that of his direct descendant: the same country that looked upon Melvinia's slavery as legal now looks up to her great-great-great granddaughter as its First Lady.

Bobbie Holt, a 73-year-old woman raised by Dolphus and his wife who was interviewed for the article, said that despite the pain in Dolphus' own family history, he was always hopeful there would one day be equality. She quoted him saying, "It's going to come together one day."

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