By Turtle Bunbury
For many of us, our main understanding of the American South, slavery and the Civil War derives from countless viewings of ‘Gone with the Wind.’ New research has revealed that Michelle Obama’s forefathers include Charles Shields, a slave-owner of Irish descent, who lived in the very same county in Georgia State where the fictional Scarlet O’Hara’s family lived. This is the remarkable story of how Charles Shields and a slave girl called Melvina became ancestors of the first African-American to become First Lady of the United States.
Above: Michelle and the man from Moneygall in the days before politics became all.
It must have been lonely for the slave girl Melvina when she first arrived at the Shields farm outside Atlanta in the summer of 1852. The 200-acre farmstead was tiny compared to the plantation where she spent the first eight years of her life. Back in South Carolina, there had been at least 21 slaves working alongside her. Now there was just herself and a woman called Mandrew.
It’s doubtful whether Melvina knew who her parents were. She did not name them when she filled out a census form many years later. [i] They were almost certainly slaves, perhaps first or second generation African Americans, whose forebears hailed from some forgotten village in Sierra Leone, the Gambia or Angola.
Melvina, a dark-eyed girl with thick wavy hair and skin the colour of cocoa, was destined to spend the first 25 years of her life on plantations run by men of Irish descent. That antebellum world collapsed with the defeat of the Southern States in the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery. It took Melvina nearly ten years to move away from the plantation. When she finally left, she set off with her four children, three of whom were of bi-racial origin. They all carried the family name of Shields.
At least one of Melvina’s children – her eldest son Dolphus– was fathered by one of the Shields boys, a son of the owner of the plantation where she worked. Whether this consummation was brought about by teenage lust, genuine love or a darker violence is unknown. It may have been a combination of the three, a consequence of the complex relationship between slave and master.
Dolphus Shields was grandfather to Pernell Shields who was, in turn, grandfather to Michelle Obama, the first woman of either African-American or slave ancestry to serve as First Lady.
The story of Mrs. Obama’s slave ancestry has been in circulation ever since the American genealogist Megan Smolenyak first unearthed the details of the mysterious Melvina in 2009. Smolenyak was also one of the key figures who helped trace Barack Obama’s ancestry to Moneygall where he and Michelle enjoyed a pint of Guinness during their epic whirlwind visit last year.
Above: Clayton County, Georgia, where Michelle’s ancestress Melvina was based
during the American Civil War, was the same county where the O’Hara’s
plantation of Tara was set in Margaret Mitchell’s fictional work,
‘Gone With the Wind’.
In June 2012, a new book called ‘American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama’ (Harper Collins) by New York Times correspondent Rachel L Swarnsclaimed Dolphus Shields’ father was Charles Marion Shields, the teenage son of Henry and Christiana Shields, the plantation bosses who owned Melvina. [ii]
The Shields were one of hundreds of thousands of Protestant and Presbyterian families who emigrated across the Atlantic from Ireland to America during the 18th century. Many of these families originated in Scotland and settled in Ireland during the plantation era that followed the Elizabethan and Cromwellian conquests. As such, they formed the backbone of the vast Scots-Irish community who dominated the south eastern USA from the Appalachians to the coast of states such as Georgia and South Carolina.
Melvina’s formative years were spent on a plantation near Spartanburg, South Carolina, run by the Patterson family who were almost certainly émigrés from Ulster. The head of the house was David Patterson, a no-nonsense Methodist farmer, who moved from North Carolina to Spartanburg in 1824, twenty years before Melvina was born. His second wife Ruth was the daughter of the defiant Margaret Kearney, an emigrant from Co. Limeick, who had emerged as something of an icon during the American Revolution.
The Patterson plantation lay along the banks of the crystal clear waters of the Pacolet River and primarily comprised of cattle and cotton.
When the elderly David Patterson died in 1852, his will divided his property between his heirs. This included farm equipment, spinning wheels, tablecloths, bushels of corn, horses, a beehive, cotton, wheat – and 21 slaves, including the ‘negro girl Melvina’. [iii]
Under the terms of Patterson’s will, Melvina was sold for $475 to his 36-year-old daughter Christiana and her husband Henry Wells Shields, a Spartanburg native, who had recently acquired a small farm near the town of Jonesboro in Georgia.
Henry’s grandfather was an Irishman called Andrew Shields who is thought to have emigrated to Virginia circa 1755 under the ‘Head Rights’ program. There is a record of an Andrew Shields who fought for the rebels and served as a ‘wagoneer’ during the American Revolution. Family lore holds that this Andrew was killed in the war, but there are also records showing he received several land grants in Georgia after the war.[iv]
By his wife Polly Ann Bishop, Andrew had a son Moses Shields, born in 1771. Moses was married three times and had children who subsequently scattered all across the southern states. [v] Charles Marion Shields, the man thought to have fathered Melvina’s son, was Moses’ grandson. He recalled meeting Moses in his youth and speculated in a letter at the end of his life that Moses had actually been born in Ireland and emigrated with two brothers. [vi] Further details of this alleged migration may yet emerge as more historians investigate the family.
Moses was the father of Henry Wells Shields, Melvina’s slave owner, who was born in 1811. [vii] Henry married Christiana Payne Patterson, a daughter of the aforementioned David Patterson by his first wife Charity.
At about the time of Moses’ death in 1845, Henry and Christiana relocated to Jonesboro and established a farm where they grew cotton, Indian corn and sweet potatoes.
This was the farm to which Melvina made the 190-mile trek southwest from Spartanburg after her purchase by the Shields in 1852. There were somewhere in the region of 400,000 slaves in the state of Georgia at this time. Many worked on the large plantations of the south but thousands more, like Melvina, worked on these small family farms.
Clayton County, the area just south of Atlanta where the Shields farm lay, would later be immortalized by Margaret Mitchell who chose the county as the base for the O’Hara’s fictional Tara plantation in ‘Gone With The Wind’.
Above: Dolphus Shields, son of Melvina, who was Michelle’s
great-great-grandfather. His father is believed to have been
an Irish-American called Charles Shields.
Whether Melvina labored in the Shields farmhouse or out in the fields is unknown. There was certainly no shortage of work. An agricultural survey of 1860 shows that the Shields were growing wheat, corn, sweet potatoes and cotton, while they also owned 3 horses, 5 cows, 17 pigs and 20 sheep. On most of the farms in Clayton County, the family worked alongside the slaves so Melvina would have been close, physically if not emotionally, to Henry and Christiana Shields and their four sons, including Charles Marion Shields (1839-1916). [viii]
According to the new book, DNA tests carried out with Charles’s descendents strongly suggest that he was the white man who fathered Melvina’s firstborn son, Dolphus, and was consequently Michelle Obama’s direct ancestor.
Dolphus Shields was born on April 10th 1861, two days before the American Civil War erupted. Thousands of young men from Georgia, including, one presumes, the four Shields brothers, duly donned the uniform of the Confederacy and went out to fight for the preservation of slavery.
Charles would have been about 21 years old when Dolphus was born; Melvina was just fifteen. Liaisons between farm owners and their slaves were strictly forbidden at the time although they were by no means uncommon. US President Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a famous affair with Sally Heming, a former house slave, while former US Secretary of State Colin Powell descends from a liaison between a slave and an Irishman who served as Governor of Jamaica, namely Eyre Coote of Kilmallock, Co. Limerick. [ix]
Unfortunately we know no more about Charles and Melvina’s relationship.
In August 1864, the full force of the Civil War came to bear on the Shields family when the Union canons launched a massive assault on Jonesboro. Thousands of Confederate soldiers died in a vain bid to stop Union troops seizing the railroad and cutting off the supply line to Atlanta. The battle of Jonesboro was to be one of the most decisive moments of the war, and brought an end to the Atlanta campaign.
Both Atlanta and Jonesboro were left in smoldering ruins, scenes well depicted in ‘Gone With the Wind’. With the abolition of slavery, many freed slaves simply downed their tools, gathered up their few possessions and began to walk the dusty lanes, away from the battle-scarred plantations where they and their forebears had been enslaved.
It is perhaps telling that Melvina, now 21, did not take to the roads. With her toddler in tow, she remained in Clayton County, working as a farm labourer on a farm adjacent to land owned by Charles Shields. Perhaps, being utterly illiterate, she simply understood her limitations. Or maybe she and Charles continued to have some form of illicit romance.
Above: Michelle Obama, First Lady.
It is potentially relevant that when the 1870 census records were compiled, Melvina listed four children and gave them all the surname of ‘Shields’. This could be a hint of their paternity, not least when three of the four were described as ‘mulatto’, meaning bi-racial. However, it was common practice for former slaves to adopt the name of the master that had last owned them.
In about 1875, Melvina and her children took to the roads of up-country Georgia and made their way some 60 miles to Bartow County, near the Alabama border, where she reunited with some former slaves from her childhood on the Patterson estate. She was to remain in Bartow for the next six decades of her life, passing away in 1938, two years after the publication of ‘Gone With the Wind’. [x]
Charles Shields continued farming, as well as teaching, until disabled by a stroke in the early 20th century. He was living at 215 Plum Street, Atlanta, shortly before he died in 1916. [xi] It is not known whether he maintained contact with Melvina after she left Clayton County.
Those who knew Melvina say that she never spoke of her childhood as a slave, or of the white man who fathered her child. Perhaps it was the shame of rape. As Dolphus’s daughter-in-law Ruth Wheeler Applin put it in an interview shortly before her death in 2010, ‘You know, she might not have wanted nobody to know.’
Or perhaps, as some of their more romantic descendents like to believe, Charles and Melvina had been in love but were unable to sustain the relationship amid the backdrop of racial tension.
Dolphus Shields later settled in Birmingham, Alabama, a boomtown where he opened his own carpentry and tool sharpening business. He became very active in the church, co-founding both the First Ebenezer Baptist Church and Trinity Baptist Church, which later became active in the civil rights campaign. He was a stern, fair-skinned man with narrow lips, straight hair and an aquiline nose. With the benefit of hindsight, some say he looked kind of Irish.
By the time of his death aged 91 in 1950, Dolphus’s grandson Pernell Shields, a painter, had moved to Chicago.
And by the time Pernell’s granddaughter Michelle Obama came to stay with him during her childhood, Melvina’s name had been all but forgotten, although there were vague rumours of white ancestry in the blood. [xii]
Michelle Obama was so moved when she first heard Melvina’s story in 2009 that she shared the story with her relatives and friends during their first Thanksgiving dinner at the White House. [xiii] As they dined on roasted turkey and oyster stuffing, Michelle – the first descendant of slaves to serve as First lady – handed out a family tree along with Dolphus’ obituary and photograph.
Researchers and genealogists are on the case across Ireland and the USA now, so who knows what further clues may yet arise in this intriguing and rather poignant tale. For now, it can be recorded in the history books that, in another classic American story, Michelle Obama, the USA’s first African-American First Lady, is the great-great-great-granddaughter of a teenage slave and her American-Irish owner.
[i] When Melvina died in 1938, in her 90’s, the space on her death certificate for her parents names was written “don’t know.” It is sometimes said that she was nicknamed Mattie.
[ii] The discovery comes as an increasing number of Americans, black and white, confront their own family histories, taking advantage of widespread access to DNA testing and online genealogical records.
It is still too early for the family to hold a reunion with many present-day Shields members expressing considerable discomfort that their forebear might have raped a teenage slave girl.
[iii] Click here for an abstract of David Patterson’s will.
[iv] White s Historical Collections of Georgia, pp. 111-113. Andrew Sheilds appears to have been awarded 230 acres of Washington County, Georgia, and there may have been a second grant of 2871 acres in the same county.
On Tuesday January 20th 1782, the Board of the Executive Council met and amongst their orders was one that ‘His Honor the Governor [John Martin] be requested to issue orders to Mr. Andrew Shields, to take into his possession any negroes belonging to the confiscated estates, and have not been hired out.’
[The Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia, VOLUME II. MINUTES OF THE EXECUTIVE COUNCIL, FROM JANUARY 14, 1778, TO JANUARY 6, 1785, AND JOURNAL OF THE LAND COURT, FROM APRIL 6 TO MAY 26, 1784’ (FRANKLIN-TURNER, 1908).
[v] Moses Shields two wives were Jane Wyatt and Celia Arnett. By his first wife, Jane Wyatt (1781-1855) from Chatham County, North Carolina, Moses appears to have had at least nine children who were scattered between Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina, during which process the fate of some of the brothers vanished.
Moses is not to be confused with the following gentleman although there could yet prove to be a relevant connection:
TOOK DE COTTON In one of the Southern courts, the other day, a rather amusing reply was made by a negro who was on trial for larceny. The county attorney read the indictment against Moses Shields (colored) for larceny; in the same he was charged with stealing a quantity of cotton On being asked the usual question, ‘What say you – guilty or not guilty?’ he replied ‘I took de cotton’.
Judge – Have you any defence to make? Any counsel to assist you?
Moses – Yes sir, no sir, I took de cotton.
Judge – Are you guilty or not guilty
Moses – Well, you see, sir, since dis ‘ere peace has been made, I aint stole quite so much.
‘Let his pleading be not guilty’, said the Judge.
The case went to the Jury and a verdict of not guilty was rendered.
Ballou’s monthly magazine, Volumes 23-24, Thomes & Talbot, 1866, p. 82.
[vi] Moses died in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1845. In a letter written from Atlanta on 15th June 1912, Moses’s grandson Charles Marion Shields suggested that Moses had come to the USA from Ireland with two brothers but he was uncertain. Charles, who was born in 1839, recalled meeting Moses in his youth and that Moses was then a very old man. [“From John A. Shields records (copied from a letter from Wm. S. Shields of Chicago) SHIELDS FAMILIES OF GEORGIA.]
Elisha P. Shields (1835 -1863) married Polly Ann Bishop. Elisha was a son of Thomas Andrus Shields (1800-1877) who married Sarah R. Patterson. Thomas Andrus second wife was Mary Tuck. Thomas Andrus has 6 sons who served in the Civil War, two of whom died.
[vii] Henry Wells Shields was born on 22 September 1811 and died about 1893, aged 83. He married Christianna Payne PATTERSON who died on 16 DEC 1893 in Georgia. Her parents were David and Charity Patterson from Spartanburg.
[viii] One of Charles’s brothers was Daniel P. SHIELDS who married Ella Bond.
[ix] More than a million people were registered as of mixed ancestry in a census of 1890 but the real figure was likely to be much higher. A considerable portion of these were the offspring of white slave-owners and African slaves.
[x] Melvinia died in Kingston, Barstow County, Georgia, in 1938. Her 1938 death certificate, signed by a relative, says “don’t know” in the space for the names of her parents, suggesting that Melvinia, then in her 90s, may never have known herself.
[xi] Charles later retired from his farm and settled at, Atlanta. He suffered from a stroke shortly before the First World War and died on 24 January 1916.
[xii] Purnell Shields, a painter, who died in 1983. His daughter Marian Shields Robinson is Michelle Obama’s mother and lives in the White House.
[xiii] Like convicts in Australia until recent times, few Americans admitted or knew of or even discussed their slave ancestry until recent times. It was a willful forgetfulness born of shame, then erased by time. As a child Michelle Obama and her brother Craig Robinson, watched the mini-series “Roots,” about Alex Haley’s family’s experience in slavery. They also spent summers with relatives in South Carolina, surrounded by old rice plantations, but it never occurred to them that they might have a direct connection to those dark plantation days.
With sincere thanks to Bryan Green, Roy Shields, Jo Vaughn, Sophie Liardet and Annemarie Kalishoek, the Atlanta History Centre, Tim Dowling and Megan Smolenyak.