Michelle Obama can trace her lineage to a female slave sold as a young girl from a South Carolina plantation and sent to Georgia. As a teenager, Melvinia Shields became impregnated by a white man, possibly her master, and those two are the great-great-great grandparents of Michelle. A genealogist working with the New York Times uncovered the details, revealing more about the first lady’s family history than even she herself knew growing up.
“She is representative of how we have evolved and who we are,” says one historian. “We are not separate tribes of Latinos and whites and blacks in America. We’ve all mingled, and we have done so for generations.” Melvinia gave birth to Dolphus Shields around 1859. As an adult, Dolphus became an enterprising member of the first generation of free blacks: he was literate and owned a carpentry store. He died in 1950, the same year Purnell Shields—Michelle's grandfather—looked to take advantage of new opportunities in Chicago.