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Megan Smolenyak

Megan Smolenyak

Posted: February 20, 2010 05:22 PM

Michelle Obama's Roots: "Colored Persons Cohabiting ... on 27th February, 1866"

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President Obama's election was no doubt historic, but in a sense, the presence of Michelle Obama in the White House is even more remarkable. She, daughters Malia and Sasha, and her mother, Marian (Shields) Robinson, are the first descendants of slaves to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as members of the first family.

Last year, I spent nine months researching Mrs. Obama's ancestry, and some of my findings were shared in the New York Times, including the tale of her great-great-grandfather, Dolphus Shields and his mother, Melvina McGruder.

"First Grandma" Marian's family lived in Chicago, so I don't know whether she ever met her Alabama-based great-grandfather Dolphus, but she would have been 12 years old when he passed away. I mention this because Dolphus was born into slavery, yet lived long enough to overlap the life of a White House-bound descendant. For all the challenges this country has wrestled with and continues to confront today, that simple fact speaks volumes about America.

Mrs. Obama's personal history informs our national history. Of all of her ancestors, Dolphus and Melvina called to me most loudly, but there were others who caught my attention as I attempted to fill out the branches of her family tree, so I thought I would share another snapshot from yesteryear.

While every southern state except Florida, Arkansas and Texas can claim a piece of the First Lady's past, no place holds more of it than Henry and Pittsylvania counties in Virginia. Fully a quarter of her ancestry traces to this region. Were she to visit Martinsville or Danville, she would be walking among more hidden cousins than anyplace else other than Chicago where the various branches of her family eventually intertwined due to the Great Migration.

It's Henry County that produced one of the most intriguing documents I encountered during my research. Many, though not all, of Michelle Obama's ancestors were enslaved and treated as property. Those who have any experience with African American genealogy know well that this harsh reality adds insult to injury because it effectively renders one's ancestors next to invisible. When trying to push back to pre-Emancipation days, it's necessary to identify the slave owner, only to earn the right to then sift through endless piles of wills, deeds and other property records in the hope of spotting a forebear mentioned along with crops and furniture - not to mention, with a price tag attached.

So the document I'm about to share - the Register of Colored Persons cohabiting together as Husband and Wife on 27th February, 1866 - is something of a mixed blessing. While it has its origins in the countless indignities of slavery, it is invaluable to those descended from those listed in it.

Shortly after Emancipation, the General Assembly in Virginia passed a law to permit what amounted to a retroactive solemnization of the marriages of former slaves in the state. Previously denied the privilege of marriage, couples could now register their names and those of their children at the local courthouse, and both the marriage and offspring would thereafter be regarded as legitimate in the eyes of the law.

In the 144 years since, many of these lists have disappeared for a variety of reasons, but the registry for Henry County survives, and along with it, precious family details. In fact, this is the first recording of the full names of most of those enumerated in its pages.

Several pairs of Mrs. Obama's ancestors took this opportunity to legitimize their unions. Here, for instance, is the listing for Peter and Dolly Jumper and their children. What sets them apart from her other predecessors is that they were free long before Emancipation - a topic for another time.

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This record was found in the Local Government Records Collection of the Library of Virginia in Richmond, but those with Henry County roots are more fortunate still due to the Bassett Historical Center and the efforts of John B. Harris (featured on the Center's website).

Bassett is the home of Bassett Furniture, but most of its factories are quiet now and the Center is a beehive of activity in an otherwise slumbering town. It was here that John B. Harris (sadly, no longer with us) spent many of his retirement years unearthing and carefully recording the history of African Americans in Henry County. Among other endeavors, he transcribed this hard-on-the-eyes cohabitation list. The same Jumper listing shown above is seen here much more clearly, making it easy to absorb the names and ages of all family members. Note the word "free" in the columns for the name of the last owner.

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Mrs. Obama's Tinsley ancestors also availed themselves of this opportunity, and from their entry, we learn that Tillman Tinsley was born in Pittsylvania County and once considered the property of James Tinsley, while his wife Amy was a Henry County native whose former "mistress" was Mrs. A. Thornton. This raises questions of how they managed a family life of any kind with different owners, but their eight children is evidence that they had done so since 1847, and this situation was not especially unusual.

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Another possible pair of Mrs. Obama's ancestors, Esau and Amy Wade, is also in this cohabitation list, but I haven't included them as a piece of conflicting evidence has surfaced that makes me slightly less certain that they were indeed her 3rd great-grandparents. But if they were, it's interesting to note that Esau was designated to serve the Confederacy when Henry County slave holders were obligated to furnish slaves for public works and other similar purposes. It's hard to fathom how he must have felt as he was inspected for duty.

To those who are not genealogically inclined, I realize it might sound strange when I say how lucky Mrs. Obama is to have Henry County roots and ancestors who appear in this cohabitation registry. Obviously, the circumstances that resulted in the creation of this list are beyond horrific, but its existence is a gateway that makes it possible to learn more about her family and Mr. Harris's contribution makes it even more accessible. African American research would be infinitely easier if more such records had been generated and protected, but it's fortunate for all of us that so much of our First Lady's ancestry happened to be preserved in this exceptional register.

 
 
 

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