Posted on March 2, 2007

A New Twist To An Intriguing Family History

David Nitkin and Harry Merritt, Baltimore Sun, March 2, 2007

Many people know that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas.

But an intriguing sliver of his family history has received almost no attention until now: It appears that forebears of his white mother owned slaves, according to genealogical research and census records.

The records—which had never been addressed publicly by the Illinois senator or his relatives—were first noted in an ancestry report compiled by William Addams Reitwiesner, who works at the Library of Congress and practices genealogy in his spare time. The report, on Reitwiesner’s Web site, carries a disclaimer that it is a “first draft”—one likely to be examined more closely if Obama is nominated.

According to the research, one of Obama’s great-great-great-great grandfathers, George Washington Overall, owned two slaves who were recorded in the 1850 census in Nelson County, Ky. The same records show that one of Obama’s great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers, Mary Duvall, also owned two slaves.

The Sun retraced much of Reitwiesner’s work, using census information available on the Web site and documents retrieved by the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, among other sources. The records show that Overall, then 30, owned a 15-year-old black female and a 25-year-old black male, while Mary Duvall, his mother-in-law, owned a 60-year-old black man and a 58-year-old black woman. (Slaves are listed in the 1850 census by owner, age, “sex,” and “colour,” not by name.)


The research traces the Duvalls to Mareen Duvall, a major land owner in Anne Arundel County in the 1600s. The inventory of his estate in 1694 names 18 slaves, according to a family history published in 1952.

The records could add a new dimension to questions by some who have asked whether Obama—who was raised in East Asia and Hawaii and educated at Columbia and Harvard—is attuned to the struggles of American blacks descended from West African slaves.


Gary Boyd Roberts, a senior research scholar at the New England Historic Genealogical Society who published a book on the family lineage of presidents, said he did not think the slave-holding history was “particularly unusual.”

“If you have a white Southern mother, or a mother from the middle states who has ancestry in the South, it doesn’t strike me that that should be very surprising,” he said. While the majority of such families did not own slaves, many with some wealth did, Roberts said.


It was unclear last night whether Obama was aware of any slave-holding ancestors, but he makes no mention of them in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.

The book contains many approving references to his mother’s side of the family. At one point, he writes that his mother “could give voice to the virtues of her midwestern past and offer them up in distilled form.”


Reitwiesner, the researcher, declined to be interviewed for this article. “I’ll let my Web page [] speak for itself,” he said in an e-mail. The Obama report contains a disclaimer that appears on all of Reitwiesner’s work: “The following material . . . should not be considered either exhaustive or authoritative, but rather as a first draft.”

Genealogical experts who reviewed the Obama family tree at the request of The Sun would not vouch for its findings.

Most of the historical entries lack citations of authenticating source material, such as birth and death certificates or marriage licenses, said Barbara Vines Little, past president of the National Genealogical Society in Virginia, adding that “he has nothing here that I can see that would allow you to make any logical link.”


But Roberts, the New England scholar, collaborated with Reitwiesner on a 1984 book about the American roots of Princess Diana, and calls him “exceptionally bright” and “quite a good researcher.”


Author and essayist Debra J. Dickerson wrote in a January article that she had previously refrained from opining about the senator because “I didn’t have the heart (or the stomach) to point out the obvious: Obama isn’t black.”

“‘Black,’ in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves,” Dickerson said.

[The family tree of Emmy-Award-winner Barack Obama can be viewed at the Web site here.]