In the book, American Tapestry, Rachel Swarns explains how Michelle Obama's family tree includes a slave owner named Henry W. Shields, and an enslaved woman named Melvinia. Shields' son Charles is most likely the father of Melvinia's son, Dolphus. Dolphus T. Shields was the first lady’s maternal great-great-grandfather.
Clearly, cultural norms change over time, and none of us is to blame for any actions taken by our ancestors. But if we feel pride in discovering a story of love, courage, or integrity in our ancestry, what do we feel when we discover something unpleasant? Can we feel pride in some, without feeling shame in the others?
Some of Mrs. Obama's distant living relatives were interviewed for the book, and their reactions are very interesting. Some live in hope that the relationship between Charles and Melvinia was consensual. One woman points to records showing Melvinia had more bi-racial children after the Civil War and says, “To me, it’s an obvious love story that was hard for the South to accept back then." Other relatives don't talk about the Shields' story outside of their homes, for fear of being painted with the same brush as their fore-father.
I think the most balanced approach comes from 69-year-old Joan Tribble, a white descendant of Henry Shields. She says, "I can’t really change anything. But I can be open-minded to people and accept them and hope they’ll accept me.”
What about you? Have you found any ethically complicated characters in your family tree? How does your family handle such discussions?
More information can be found in this NY Times article by the book's author.