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Michelle Obama And Our Slave Ancestors

From a reverent New York Times:

In First Lady’s Roots, a Complex Path From Slavery


October 8, 2009

WASHINGTON — In 1850, the elderly master of a South Carolina estate took pen in hand and painstakingly divided up his possessions. Among the spinning wheels, scythes, tablecloths and cattle that he bequeathed to his far-flung heirs was a 6-year-old slave girl valued soon afterward at $475.

In his will, she is described simply as the “negro girl Melvinia.” After his death, she was torn away from the people and places she knew and shipped to Georgia. While she was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time.

In the annals of American slavery, this painful story would be utterly unremarkable, save for one reason: This union, consummated some two years before the Civil War, represents the origins of a family line that would extend from rural Georgia, to Birmingham, Ala., to Chicago and, finally, to the White House.

Melvinia Shields, the enslaved and illiterate young girl, and the unknown white man who impregnated her are the great-great-great-grandparents of Michelle Obama, the first lady.

Viewed by many as a powerful symbol of black advancement, Mrs. Obama grew up with only a vague sense of her ancestry, aides and relatives said. During the presidential campaign, the family learned about one paternal great-great-grandfather, a former slave from South Carolina, but the rest of Mrs. Obama’s roots were a mystery.

Now the more complete map of Mrs. Obama’s ancestors — including the slave mother, white father and their biracial son, Dolphus T. Shields — for the first time fully connects the first African-American first lady to the history of slavery, tracing their five-generation journey from bondage to a front-row seat to the presidency

In typical New York Times fashion the article proceeds to lay out the purported findings about Mrs. Obama’s ancestry in mind-numbing detail.

But we can’t help but wonder why The Times never seems to note that many non-black Americans can also claim to be the descendents of slaves.

From Wikipedia:

Indentured Servant – North America

In addition to slaves (who were mostly from Africa), Europeans, including Irish, Scottish, English, and Germans, were brought over in substantial numbers as indentured servants, particularly in the British Thirteen Colonies. Over half of all white immigrants to the English colonies of North America during the 17th and 18th centuries may have been indentured servants. In the 18th and early 19th century numerous Europeans traveled to the colonies as redemptioners.

It has been estimated that the redemptioners comprised almost 80% of the total British and continental immigration to America down to the coming of the Revolution

On the journey to America, many passengers did not survive the trip to the new land. Some died of starvation, disease, or suicide. In Colonial North America, employers usually paid for European workers’ passage across the Atlantic Ocean, reimbursing the shipowner who held their papers of indenture. In the process many families were broken apart. During the time living with their masters, their fellow indentured servants took the role of family

The agreement could also be an exchange for professional training: after being the indentured servant of a blacksmith for several years, one would expect to work as a blacksmith on one’s own account after the period of indenture was over. During the 17th century, most of the white labourers in Virginia came from England this way. Their masters were bound to feed, clothe, and lodge them. Ideally, an indentured servant’s lot in the establishment would be no harder than that of a contemporary apprentice, who was similarly bound by contract and owed hard, unpaid labour while "serving his time." At the end of the allotted time, an indentured servant was to be given a new suit of clothes, tools, or money, and freed.

Like slaves, servants could be bought and sold, could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment, and saw their obligation to labor enforced by the courts. To ensure uninterrupted work by the female servants, the law lengthened the term of their indenture if they became pregnant. But unlike slaves, servants could look forward to a release from bondage. If they survived their period of labor, servants would receive a payment known as "freedom dues" and become free members of society.

On the other hand, this ideal was not always a reality for indentured servants. Both male and female laborers could be subject to violence, occasionally even resulting in death. The large number of servants who ran away or committed suicide suggests that the conditions of life during the period of bondage may not have been so different for the servant and the slave. Female indentured servants in particular might be raped and/or sexually abused by their masters. Cases of successful prosecution for these crimes were very uncommon, as indentured servants were unlikely to have access to a magistrate, and social pressure to avoid such brutality could vary by geography and cultural norm. The situation was particularly difficult for indentured women, because in both low social class and sex, they were believed to be particularly prone to vice, making legal redress unusual.

Indentured servitude was a method of increasing the number of colonists, especially in the British colonies. Voluntary migration and Convict labor only provided so many people, and since the journey across the Atlantic was dangerous, other means of encouraging settlement were necessary. Contract-laborers became an important group of people and so numerous that the United States Constitution counted them specifically in appointing representatives:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years

Indentured servants differed from slavery. There was a continuum between the designations "free" and "unfree" in the colonial period. In this sense, the development of racial thinking to separate and privilege the mainly white laborers from black slaves solidified the institution of slavery even as it opened, at least in name, opportunities for lower-class whites. Ultimately, slavery persisted until 1865 in the South, but indentured servitude did not…

Indentured servitude was also used by the Hudson’s Bay Company, in what is now Canada, to staff the coal mines around Nanaimo well into the late 1800s.

Modern indentured servitude takes the form of illegal immigrants paying their passage by long work-hours in harsh conditions, often at subsistence pay rates to support themselves. Such activity is not uncommon in America and Europe as well…

Article 4 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (passed in 1948) declares such servitude as illegal. But, only national legislation can implement that illegality. In America, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 extended servitude to cover Peonage as well as Involuntary Servitude…

Sure there are some major differences between being an indentured servant and a slave. As Wikipedia notes:

An indentured servant is a laborer under contract to an employer for a fixed period of time, typically three to seven years, in exchange for their transportation, food, clothing, lodging and other necessities. Unlike a slave, an indentured servant is required to work only for a limited term specified in a signed contract.

But there are some remarkable similarities as well.

And indentured slavery is still going on to this day.

As, alas, is plain slavery – in too many parts of the world.

This article was posted by Steve on Thursday, October 8th, 2009. Comments are currently closed.

23 Responses to “Michelle Obama And Our Slave Ancestors”

  1. caligirl9 says:

    What I found interesting about the Slimes article is how MO declined to comment about her ancestry, claiming it was “personal.”

    Seriously, I think she should have at least acknowledged the research and her family tree and offer a comment. Her ancestry is nothing to be embarrassed about. It gives her a bit more credibility as far as the African American experience is concerned, unlike her husband’s supposed ancestry.

    And point well taken about slavery not being exclusive to black people. We’ve been enslaving each other for centuries …

  2. proreason says:

    The only thing “unique” about American slavery is that 600,000 of our ancestors died to right that wrong.

    We’re the only country to ever do that.

    But, of course, it isn’t enough.

    Because if we ever said that, then Rev JesseAlWright couldn’t prey on white people to get rich, and ordinary black people wouldn’t have anything to blame for the failures that are 100% the result of their own culture and their white liberal enablers.

  3. VMAN says:

    A couple of facts that are always missing in the discussion of slavery in the US is that 95% of all the slave that were taken from Africa went to the islands and South America and the other is that only 3% of the people in the US actually owned slaves. But don’t let the facts get in the way. Remember the victors always write history and it just sounds better to say that the civil war (the war of northern aggression) was fought over slavery. And what about the slaves that either earned their freedom or were set free by their owners?

    There is a story that has been told for generations in my wife’s family. It’s about a butler (a slave) that protected the family from certain death at the hands of the Yankees. Not only did he protect the family but he also hid many of the families valuables. When he would not give the location of the family or the valuables he was quickly killed by the very soldier that were charged with delivering these unfortunate souls from slavery.

  4. Petronius says:

    Steve’s reference to indentured servants underscores the often neglected fact that there are different types and degrees of slavery.

    And that perhaps most Americans have ancestors in their genealogies who were slaves at some point in history––whether indentured servants in the American colonies, or what-have-you. After all, in the age of the Emperor Nero, most of the people of England and Wales were Roman slaves.

    Yet most of us stopped whining about the struggles and misfortunes of our pioneer ancestors long ago. Complaining is never of any use; it always stems from weakness. How much more uplifting to celebrate their endurance of hardships, their fortitude in adversity, and their invincible will to self-responsibility?

    But of course the purveyors of historical victimology will have none of that. They insist upon selectivity both in their choice of victims and in their attitudes.

    The best source I have found on indentured servants in America is a book by two Londoners, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, “White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America” (New York: NYU Press, 2007, paperback).

    • proreason says:

      Medieval serfs were slaves in everything but name and being sold. Most of the fruits of their labor went to the feudal lords. The had no say-so in their governance. The legal system gave them no rights. They had subsistence lives. They had no means to move around. They could be killed at the whim of an “aristocrat”. Slaves. Just not called slaves.

      And every person of European ancestry is descended from medieval serfs. Just a few hundred years ago.

    • Petronius says:

      Exactly right, Pro. Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia only in 1861––and Russia had 43M serfs. And they still had to pay redemption taxes to gain their freedom.

      By the way, the Wikipedia statement of three to seven years for indentured servitude is misleading and much too low. Three years would have been exceptional indeed; it might have worked for a servant who contracted at arms’ length, such as a highly skilled artisan or the school teacher on the plantation. But most servants were common laborers, and for them the minimum term was seven years or more. Many servants were children, and in the tobacco colonies the term for servants under age 14 was fourteen years. The term of service could be extended for insubordination, escape attempts, pregnancy, and other reasons.

    • BannedbytheTaliban says:

      And before that Christians were the slaves of Romans, fed to the lions for entertainment.

      The Jews were slaves to the Egyptians.

      The conquered became slaves to the victors around the world, throughout history.

      Show me a person alive today and I’ll show you a descendant of a slave. We are all equal in that regard, some just more equal than others.

  5. canary says:

    President Obama is trying to make Americans his slaves. Aside take our constitutional rights away, he wants to be the slave master with total control over work, wages, homes, food, health care, schools, what we can learn, listen to, what news we are allowed. The list goes on and on.

  6. BannedbytheTaliban says:

    Food for thought for all Americans:

    How would your life be different if there were never slavery in America?

    • catie says:

      Well I’ll bite; we wouldn’t have to hear these stories about MO’s ancestry, about what a terrible nation we are and that we owe people for slavery. If they want to get testy, make those whose ancestors owned slaves pay reparations. My mother’s side was what you’d call “White Trash” during those days & her great-great grandfather was drafted to fight for the Confederacy and his family did not own slaves. In fact it wasn’t until after the war when he made his fortune (such as it was). My father’s paternal great-grandfather was taken off the ship from Ireland and pressed into service for the Union (this was in NY) and made to fight. His maternal great-great-grandfather came from money so they paid a fee $300, to have the poor Irish or some other “slob” in their view to fight in their son’s stead. There were 5 of them that they had to pay for.
      I saw today on my AT&T homepage that this Tom Joyner (some black radio host) was pushing for SC to pardon some long ago ancestors who were executed for killing a former Confederate Soldier. It really doesn’t matter to this man whether or not they were guilty, he wants SC to pardon them.
      BTW did you all know that the new Helen Keller statue replaced a statue that was of a former Confederate Officer who worked towards education for all in the state of Alabama after the war. We gotta get rid of all traces of those darned Confederates.

    • Petronius says:

      Catie––“We gotta get rid of all traces of those darned Confederates.”

      At Point Lookout Confederate Cemetery in southern Maryland they were able to remove traces of over 10,000 dead Confederate POWs.

      There are, according to the official U.S. government list, remains of only 3,384 Confederate POWs buried in a mass grave at Point Lookout. However, based on prisoners’ diaries, testimony, and reports, over 14,000 Confederate POWs died there. There are 413 confirmed names not accounted for in the Federal list. Thousands of dead were buried by their messmates in unmarked graves. And it is known that the Federal list is based on skull count, when the bones of the dead were moved, yet many skulls and other remains were used for improper purposes, and so were never reburied and never made the count. There were thirteen black Confederates imprisoned at Point Lookout.

      The Southerners died as the result of a deliberate Federal policy of overcrowding, exposure, and denial of basic necessities––no barracks, only a few tents, only a handful of blankets for thousands of POWs, no clothing, little food, and foul drinking water.

      They died of neglect, freezing, starvation, and disease, but they also died of brutal treatment by their guards. United States Colored Troops (USCT) were placed as camp guards. The black guards randomly shot into tents, randomly shot prisoners in their sleep, or shot the sick while relieving themselves at the latrines, or for coughing or calling out at night in their pain. Guards called POWs to cross the dead-line, then shot them for crossing the line. The guards forced the sickly Confederates to carry them about the camp on their backs, spurring them to go faster. Those who killed a prisoner were rewarded with promotions by their white officers. It was great sport.

      You may be interested in the story of Jane A. Perkins, a young Irish woman who served with Lee in the Danville Artillery. She was one of the few women imprisoned at Point Lookout. While there Jane gave birth to a son, whom the prisoners named “Little Artillery Man.” Baby Perkins was taken from Jane and sent to a convent in Baltimore.

      Deo vindice.

  7. Rusty Shackleford says:

    My question is, what’s the purpose of them publishing this article in the first place; To make her more black?

    Does it give her “street cred” towards “the struggle”?

    For those of us who have ceased to care about slavery in this nation’s past (that’s not the same as belittling it), such an article only serves to annoy and “stick it in our faces” when no such action is warranted. And it’s more of “all about me-“ism with this nasty, ugly, hateful woman.

    • Confucius says:

      Interesting question, Rusty.

      On reading this article, I was surprised (and delighted) to discover Michelle was not pure black.

      Perhaps her and Barack’s hate for this country are rooted in their impurity.

      And isn’t it racist for them to pick their blackness over their undeniable whiteness?

  8. TFMo says:

    Given that there were tribes in Africa that sold their defeated enemies to slavers, this poses a very interesting question: In that Obama’s family was one of the ruling class in Kenya, it is possible that Obama’s ancestors sold Michelle’s ancestor…does that mean he may be “required” make reparations too? Since he is half white, would that mean he should pay double?

    One might argue that living in the most free country in the world and becoming First Lady would be restitution enough, but I’m willing to bet Al Sharpton and the rest of the race-vultures would argue.

    • proreason says:

      It probably can’t be proven, but there are plenty of people who think the Moron’s ancestors were slavers:


      It’s probably not that far fetched. Slavery was more prevalent in Africa than it ever was in the US. And go back 10 generations and everybody has thousands of ancestors in his family tree (2 to the 10th power is 1024, and that only counts grandparents, not cousins, aunts and uncles).

      The odds of our little boy king sprouting from slavers are pretty good.

    • canary says:

      Well, according to Obama’s ancestors, they prospered $ from working for white people. He was bitter about it. His images of the National Geographic, Tarzan movies, painted head hunters, boiling and eating the white man, believing it would give them the white man’s power.
      On Obama’s first trip to Kenya, he was angry and infumed towards white people on the plane, then learned the young English men, were on their way to do missionary work.
      Obama wrote how rediculous the white people looked, wearing kackies clothing. Fumed because a young child asked for ketchup, though when Obama went cognito to the “deep red” parts of Illinoise, he asked for
      that di-jon fancy mustard, and was utterly surprised how well, he as a black man, was treated on the trip, expecting to experience racism.
      Then Obama went on a safari to see the real Africa, and was angry of a white man with glasses, who turned out to be a doctor, donating his life, to helping the poor Africans. And Obama was grossed out by some of the
      Africans with the flys all over their faces. Not the life for him.
      Obama’s hatered towards white people is so apparent by his writings on that trip. Then learning his own ansestors prospered working with the white man, and being modern.
      Obama didn’t even see that his brother, sister, father, and other relatives traveled the world, getting 1st class educations from white people.
      And consider the missionary work that churches such as mine do, the continuation of well building, in the middle of no where.
      Obama also became angry, when his sister told him how lucky he was to live in America. And he became angry when a brother he brought a tape recorder for, asked if it was a Sony.
      On the trip with Michelle, the unexpected drop in visits of relatives, and asking for things, led Michelle into saying she could not wait to get back to America. So, why she said for the first time in her adult life she was proud of America. Sorry for spelling, extra bad eye day, and fingers frozen from working in mud, rocks, and pouring rain in the dark.

  9. canary says:

    How do you explain the Obama’s at Trinity church, amening, a preacher taking the Lord’s name in vein, “g.d. the white man, repeatedly”

    And since ‘Trinity and the Obamas ministered to sex-offenders’ for 20 years, and have CZAR’s that think it’s ‘good for boys to have sex with older men’…

    Oh…and Obama’s grandfather paid with cows for young 13 year old girls, hunted them down and raped them, impregnated, beat them, & married them….(in his book) His one brother felt that young girls should at least be
    given anethesia before their private parts are mutilated.

  10. Mister C says:

    1st, none of us can choose our heritage.

    2nd, the U.S. didn’t invent slavery, it invented freedom.

    Quit trying to qualify for victimhood and get to work…E Pluribus Unum.

  11. neocon mom says:

    So incredible, the degree to which the number of indentured servants have been downplayed by the American excuse for an education system.
    This has to explain the American work ethic and why we became the country that we did.

  12. canary says:

    Obama! Let my people go!

  13. VMAN says:

    I’m going to comment one more time. I believe that if the civil war had never been fought slavery would have ended anyway. It would have collapsed under it’s own weight. Strides were already being made in farm equipment that made the need for slaves obsolete. I think people jump into correct things prematurely all the time mostly to make a name for themselves. It’s like with the economy today if we just left it alone it would be much better than it is today.

    • Rusty Shackleford says:

      You’re observation is clear and astute, V,

      I have said it for years that one of the problems in our own nation is that assumption that “everything is fixable”. Again, drawing on my military experience, in my early years as an enlisted guy, whenever we got a new commander, that commander was ALWAYS listed as a “positive, can-do” individual.

      Unfortunately, the way people like that often moved up during peace time was through the constant re-invention of the wheel.

      So we would all attend a commander’s call where we would again hear how he was gonna make our numbers soar, our production treble and we would be the “best we’ve ever been” only to find that his “groundbreaking” ideas had all been tried before and that although it worked at his last assignment, our unique mission wasn’t tailored to his “revolutionary” ideas that he learned in military management school.

      It bleeds over into many walks of life and though I completely understand that in many cases where action is needed, it is important for leaders to recognize when it’s not. GM failing was one of those times. Airlines have failed over the years and no one lifted a finger to help. And, though it can be argued that they failed for this reason or that, the industry as a whole adjusted and the failures were absorbed by the system. No government intervention would’ve changed it when the corporation in question failed to adapt to market changes.

      GM was a dinosaur in many respects and had the millstone of an unyielding union around its neck. It still does. And as long as they refuse to adapt to the changes in the market, they will dig themselves a grave. The government cannot change that market.

      The union cannot change the market, either.

      So if they kept building crap, their sales numbers would continue to drag behind Toyota..and their initial reaction will always be to “get more money” instead of doing the hard thing and admit that they are getting spanked.

      In this case, the lesson is proving to be true and unfortunately, the boy kept his promise by supporting the UAW and now they are in trouble up to their eyeballs and although it’s obvious to the industry, if not the rest of the world, it will still come with all the related trappings of a system in turmoil..and the blaming, and the political maneuvering, etc. It cannot be completely analyzed yet as it’s not done playing out.

      But when GM is ultimately gone and all the money has vanished, history will tell the correct story. My grandkids will learn about it much the way I read about the rise of the automobile over the railroads.

      And even much of that is still being learned.

      But that War Of Northern Aggression was fought, as much as all wars are, over money, power and control of this thing or that.

      Slavery was a convenient way to put the ideological fight into the average farmer. Unfortunately, the coloreds and white apologists think that’s all it was about. But in real, actual, no holds barred intellectual circles, the truth is known, as you have mentioned.

    • proreason says:

      It is still extremely significant that hundreds of thousands of people were willing to sacrifice their lives.

      Granted, stopping slavery was only one of the underlying causes for the war. Preserving the Union was also important, and there were cultural causes and states right’s issues beyond slavery. Even so, it is clear that slavery was at the root of that conflict.

      As you say, VMAN, slavery might have ended without that horrible war.

      But I think the fact that the country did go to war is the clearest possible statement that the US always has been the moral lighthouse for the world.

      For today’s contemptable con men to degrade that fact so they can stuff their pockets with booty is beyond outrageous. It’s a crime on the level of the great crimes of history.

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