Tracking Michelle Obama’s Slave Roots

Joe Johns and Justine Redman, CNN, July 16, 2009

In many places across the South you can walk in the footsteps of slaves, and if you understand the history, it is not a happy journey. The same is true at Friendfield Plantation outside Georgetown, South Carolina.

It’s not exactly “Gone With the Wind,” but what makes this overgrown 3,300 acres of marsh and pine trees stand out is this: The family of first lady Michelle Obama believes her great-great grandfather was held as a slave here and labored in the mosquito-infested rice fields.

It makes Friendfield Plantation a symbol of something more than servitude. It’s the symbol of something that’s never happened before, one important segment of an American family’s journey from the humiliation of slavery to the very top of the nation’s ruling class.

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Friendfield’s most distinctive historical feature, perhaps, is the dirt road known as Slave Street.

Six white-washed little shacks are all that remain of the slave quarters, even though rows of these houses once stood on the property. About 350 slaves lived here during the 19th century.

The houses are nothing special–no plumbing, of course. The wooden walls are paper thin in places. It would have been hot and humid in summer, and most certainly cold in winter, although the shacks had fireplaces.

They would have been crowded: probably one or two families living in a space smaller than a modern-day garage.

The White House is some 472 miles from Georgetown, South Carolina. But long before Michelle Obama was born, her great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, likely toiled in the fields here six days a week, from sunup to sundown.

The place he probably called home was a little white shack smaller than–by comparison–a Secret Service security shed on the grounds of the executive mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

All told, hundreds of people lived like this, on this one plantation alone.

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All that’s known about Jim Robinson’s life comes from the few remaining records that mention him. Slaves weren’t documented as individuals in the census, nor in life and death certificates. They were property, not people.

But Michelle Obama’s great-great grandfather was a teenager when slavery was abolished, so as a free man, he started to leave a paper trail.

The 1880 census shows he was born about 1850, in South Carolina, and that his parents were born in South Carolina as well. He married a woman named Louiser, and in 1880 they already had three children, two boys and a girl, ages 1, 2, and 3.

The son that would become Michelle Obama’s great grandfather was not born yet. The census lists Jim’s occupation as a farmer, and Louiser’s as “keeping house.”

They are both recorded as unable to read or write. It’s good fortune to uncover even this much information; the original handwritten census got wet, the ink ran and it is nearly illegible. Proof of life, nearly washed away.

There are a lot of unknowns concerning Michelle Obama’s ancestry–how many generations of slaves there were, or what route they took to this hemisphere.

The Obama election campaign commissioned a study of Michelle’s genealogy by the research group Lowcountry Africana, but they couldn’t make the link back to Africa. As with so many African-Americans’ family histories, the paper trail runs dry.

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“There’s not a real Friendfield Plantation records set, or plantation journals that have been preserved . . . and there’s certainly not a shred of documentary evidence right now which would even suggest to us what the African origins would be,” Carrier [historian Tori Carrier, of Lowcountry Africana] said.

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Back in Georgetown, South Carolina, Margretta Knox remembers attending the Bethel AME church with the first lady’s grandparents–Jim Robinson’s grandson and his wife–when she was a girl. The couple spent many of their years in Chicago, but returned back South after they retired.

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But the family ties to the old plantation just got lost. “We let our parents die before we really thought about asking them questions,” Knox said.

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