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Professor Gates, Michelle's Great-Great-Great-Granddaddy and Mine

Dear Friends,

I have a shameful confession to make. I am the great great great granddaughter of slaveholders.

My ancestors held African people and their children in slavery.

In the 1800's, one of my ancestors (probably more) fathered at least one child whom he continued to hold in slavery. Her name was Martha. As she grew into adulthood and had children, he kept them, his grandchildren, as his slaves, too. Once I started researching it, I found that many of my Southern relatives held slaves at that time.

Who can imagine such a thing? Not in my family!! No. We aren't like that. We wouldn't...I mean...Oh, dear, it says in this 1785 will...2 slaves Min and Fawn bequeathed to...and "Min's increase" bequeathed to someone else, her future children will be given to someone else?....

I grieve for four years. I don't know what to do with this information. Min and Fawn and Min's increase. What a horrible expression. Increase.

November 4, 2008. My beloved Barack Obama is elected President. I touched his hand on September 15, 2008 and now he is the President of the United States. The day after his election, I find a book with more family wills and more slave names and then more wills and more slave names follow. Forty-eight enslaved men, women and children in all. Now I realize that I have to do something with the names. I had kept Min and Fawn in my heart for four years. That was wrong. I had to give these names to someone who could save them and share them with their descendants.

And there was much more to do, now. I had found the name of the daughter that my great great great grandfather, Peter Culp, had fathered and I had found the names of her ten children. So, eleven of the forty-eight slaves were my aunt and cousins. I want to find them.

Once you know their names, you have a moral responsibility to save them and share them. This is my mission now. I am already inspired, but today I found yet another powerful inspiration.

Here, in my first post, I place this article by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which recapitulates the story of both Michelle Obama's ancestry and the story of my great great "granddaddy" and the unknown slave woman who was Martha's mother, the true story of our American racial heritage.

I hope someday Martha's descendants can find their ancestry like Michelle Obama has and because, while I'm ashamed of my great great great granddaddy's actions, I embrace his daughter and her children. I hope someday I can do it in real life.


Published on The Root (

Home > Michelle’s Great-Great-Great-Granddaddy—and Yours


Michelle’s Great-Great-Great-Granddaddy—and Yours
By: Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Posted: October 8, 2009 at 11:50 AM

In defiance of law, social convention and what some “believe,” an enormous amount of “race mixing” has long been occurring in the U.S.

First Lady Michelle Obama’s maternal third-great-grandfather was a white man who fathered Melvinia Shields’ (her maternal third great-grandmother) son, Dolphus T. Shields, both slaves. This discovery, like all recoveries of the identities of ancestors we thought had been obliterated in the crucible of slavery, is first and foremost a welcome gift for the first family, especially for Michelle’s mother, Marian Shields Robinson, and the Shields family line. And for anyone still naïve enough to believe in the myth of racial purity, it is one more corroboration that the social categories of “white” and “black” are and always have been more porous than can be imagined, especially in that nether world called slavery.

As I have learned since embarking upon my African American Lives series (for PBS), never before are more African Americans determined to ferret out the names of their slave ancestors, and never before have more resources, especially online, been available to facilitate these searches. But, be prepared. To paraphrase the Bible: seek; but fasten your seat belt as to what ye may find.

For those of us fortunate enough to lift the veil on our family’s slave past and identify our actual ancestors, these genealogical searches often yield startling results—two in particular. The first shock? That Cherokee Princess that family lore says is your great-great-grandmother most probably never existed. The sad truth is that the overwhelming percentage of African-American people have very little Native American ancestry in their DNA.

A Harvard colleague of mine likes to say, “DNA don’t lie.” And the Reverend Eugene Rivers likes to say that “DNA has freed more black men than Abraham Lincoln.” But genealogy and DNA tests are also “freeing” a lot of our white ancestors as well, revealing the vast extent of white ancestry that each black American has. Here are the facts: Only 5 percent of all black Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry, the equivalent of at least one great-grandparent. Those “high cheek bones and “straight black hair” your relatives brag about at every family reunion and holiday meal since you were 2 years old? Where did they come from? To paraphrase a well-known French saying, “Seek the white man.”

African Americans, just like our first lady, are a racially mixed or mulatto people—deeply and overwhelmingly so. Fact: Fully 58 percent of African-American people, according to geneticist Mark Shriver at Morehouse College, possess at least 12.5 percent European ancestry (again, the equivalent of that one great-grandparent). As a matter of fact, if I analyzed the y-DNA (which a man inherits exactly from his father, and he from his father, etc.) of all the black players in the NBA, fully one-third (somewhere between 30 percent and 35 percent) would, incredibly, discover that they were descended from a white male who impregnated a black female, most likely a female slave, just as a white man did Michelle Obama’s third-great-grandmother. In the ‘60s, we were fond of saying that we are an “African people.” Well, our DNA proclaims loudly that we are a European people, a multicultural people, a people black as well as white. You might think of us as an Afro-Mulatto people, our genes recombined in that test tube called slavery.

For African American Lives, I’ve tested 21 African Americans, possessing a range of phenotypes—from a person who could “pass” for “white,” and whose father actually did, to people with darker and more traditionally African features, such as Don Cheadle and Chris Rock. Not once has any person tested turned out to be 100 percent African. Chris Rock, for example, is 20 percent European. Don Cheadle is 19 percent European. That straight black hair and high cheek bones on your grandmama’s head? Look at a Google Map of Europe, find Italy, then look straight north to England and Ireland, Germany and France. That’s where, in all probability, your ancestor’s hair texture and lighter complexion comes from, not from the rendezvous of a fugitive slave and an Native American compatriot, united in enmity toward a common enemy, sitting around a campfire, smoking a peace pipe and woofing on the white man.

Black roots are deeply and improbably tangled, inextricably intertwined with the history of slavery and the genes of the very Euro-Americans who enslaved our ancestors. In my personal case, geneticists floored me by revealing that not only did my father’s line go back to Ireland (we had thought this), but my mother’s did as well, which is very rare. (Only 1 percent of us descend from a white woman who slept with a black slave or former slave.) Not only that, but my own admixture shows that I am 49.4 percent European and 50.6 percent African, even though no one would ever mistake me for a “mulatto.”

The story of the paternity of Melvinia Shields’ children is all too common in the annals of American family trees. Among the guests in African American Lives, Quincy Jones (who is a direct descendant of King Edward I), Maya Angelou, Tom Joyner and Morgan Freeman all learned the names of the white male who impregnated their black female slave ancestor—unlike Mrs. Obama whose white ancestor remains anonymous. My paternal great-great-grandmother, Jane Gates, took the identity of the father of her children with her to her grave in 1888. But with DNA tests, we are closing in on this Irishman’s identity, almost a century and a quarter later.

What all this means is that in defiance of the law and social convention, and just what some “believe,” an enormous amount of “race mixing” has long been occurring in the United States. We as a society have been in deep denial about our heritage of interracial sexuality for just as long. Some of this sexual contact was voluntary, we now know: For example, Morgan Freeman is descended from white Alfred and black Celie Carr, who not only stayed together after slavery ended but lived together openly and are buried together in Mississippi. But most of it was coerced or violent or a species of rape, a reflection or a result of a profound imbalance of power. Because of a confluence of factors—the illegality of miscegenation, the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape at the root of these relationships, infidelity, guilt, shame and disgrace at an unwed pregnancy—both black people and white people had a certain vested interest in keeping these relationships in the dark, as it were.

The first lady’s family tree—and the social and sexual complexity it reflects—is quite typical of the family trees of a majority of African Americans. And we all have to be happy for Mrs. Obama that her ancestors—long lost—have now been found. There is a certain inexpressible joy in knowing from whom you have descended, knowing where and from whom and through whom you come from, no matter what their complexion or hair texture. Michelle Obama’s family tree enables all Americans to marvel at—and begin to accept—the very complexity of race relations in the history of this country, a complexity registered in our collective DNA, a complexity writ large on the very face of black, or mulatto, America.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is the founder and the editor-in-chief of The Root.

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Comment by Melody Lassalle on October 20, 2009 at 11:46pm
My cousin always says that we can't be responsible for what our ancestors did. Thanks for sharing your family history as well as Professor Gates' article.
Comment by Sally Sheridan on October 15, 2009 at 12:08pm
Hi Ken,

Not only were my Culps Christians, my 3rd great grandfather Peter Culp, the father of this little girl Martha, was a well-known PREACHER in Tennessee, where they were living starting in the mid 1830s. The reason we know of Martha and her ten children is that after his white wife ( my 3rd great grandmother) died, he remarried three times. The first time he remarried, in 1866 at age 75, he got a new Bible and he wrote the names of his black daughter, Martha, and her ten children along with all their birthdates.

At that time Martha, his slave daughter, newly freed (not by him, but by the Union Army, incidentally) and her children appear in the family Bible. Did he wait until his white wife died to recognize his slave family? Or were their names in his previous Bible. I doubt it. Did his advanced age and the deaths of numerous children, grandchildren and in-laws during the war make him think about facing his own mortality? Maybe he felt he wanted to save their immortal souls by putting them in his Bible. Too bad he didn't think to put them in his will, too. But at least he put their names in his Bible and that's why I was able to find them in January 2009. Thank you sincerely for that, Peter.

So, Ken, yes, you bring up one of the points I personally agonize over and I feel I have a family karma to heal. I am not flippant about using those words. A family karma to heal. It is a curse and a blessing. Once I found their names, I had a responsibility to save them. I am in the process of doing that. It is also a blessing. I have the time and the knowledge and the tools to do that. And people like Toni Carrier who are anxious to help me. No excuses now. I am blessed and I am happy to have something important to do at my age. I have always lived my life trying to do meaningful work, big or small. Thing only thing that makes it bearable to look at this is the assurance I get that this is really important historical and spiritual work to do and I really believe deeply that it is. That's why I was so moved by the Gates article, again saying how crucial it is for people who have the slave names to preserve that information.

Truly it is painful to keep exposing myself to this guilt but walking away from it is like being a crime victim and not "snitching." I can't do that. It seems like that would just continue the tacit approval that let this thing happen.

Someone has to see it. Someone has to say "It happened and I know who did it." It was us. My family. Here are the crime victims. Here is a list of the bodies John Wayne Gacy buried in the crawl spaces of his house. He made a list and passed it down in our family. This happened. These are the names. Some of the victims were strangers and some were family members. It was 250 years ago but let's see if there is something we can do now. Someone has to try. We have to try. We, white people, descendants of slaveholders have to start trying harder to save that historical truth.
Comment by Sally Sheridan on October 15, 2009 at 10:36am
In November 2008, I found Toni Carrier at USF Low Country Africana Heritage Project who welcomed me and my information right away. She has now turned my information over to Luckie Daniels who is processing it.
Comment by Ken Jones on October 15, 2009 at 10:23am
One of my paternal lines were "Southerners" and apperantly supported slavery,but as of yet I have not discovered whether or not they owned slaves. I can understand how you feel about your grandfather though. It always amazed me that these people who thought so little of another human race could get up on Sunday morning and go to church. (As most that I've seen were Southern Baptist) It is beyond our comprehension today,I believe,how anyone could enslave another race,have children by a race that they allegedly dispise and continue to hold to a doctrine of country and religious belief. How was this even possible ?
Comment by Richie C. on October 15, 2009 at 9:18am
Kudos to you for sharing your journey with your family's past. The question, I guess, is how best to save and share the information you have compiled. There are several learned folk on Genealogy Wise in the area of African-American/Slave genealogy. I'd suggest seeking them out for their opinions.




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