David Patterson was the owner of 21 slaves on a plantation in Spartanburg, South Carolina, when he died in 1852. In his will, he bequeathed one of his slaves, 6-year-old Melvinia (and any children she might bear) to his wife Ruth, and asked that his slave families "be kept together as far as possible."
Ruth Patterson is believed to have died before Mr. Patterson. Melvinia's new masters became Mr. Patterson's daughter Christian, and her husband Henry W. Shields, who owned a 200-acre farm in Georgia. Melvinia became one of only three slaves on the Shields family farm.
Melvinia’s great-great-great granddaughter would become America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama. The story of the black, white, and multiracial ancestors of Michelle Obama” that both serves to connect Kingston and tell the story of the family ties to Michelle Obama and the White House is still largely unknown. “American Tapestry” by author Rachel Swarns begins to explore the story, but still the story remains largely untold.
The Shields grew cotton, corn and other staples. They had four sons, aged 19 to 24 when the war came. All served in the war. The oldest son, Charles served in the Georgia 8th Cavalry Regiment.
Figure 1 Dolphus Shields, businessman, homeowner, church deacon and great-great grandfather of Mrs. Obama. (Courtesy of Bobbie Holt)
In 1860, at the dawn of the Civil War, Melvinia gave birth to her first child, Adolphus Theodore Shields (Dolphus – later known as D.T.), the father being the Shields’s oldest son Charles (according to DNA research). Melvinia remained with the Shields family through the Civil War. Melvinia was living on the farm near Jonesboro during the epic Battle of Jonesboro, August 31-September 1, 1864, that sealed the fate of Atlanta. The Shields’s farm was in audible distance of the fighting of this final battle of the Atlanta Campaign.
Henry Wells Shields, the owner of Mrs. Obama’s great-great-great grandmother, Melvinia Shields, is the elderly man with the beard. DNA testing and research points to Henry’s son, Charles Marion Shields, as the father of Melvinia’s son, Dolphus. That would make Charles Mrs. Obama’s great-great-great grandfather. Charles is the third man standing from right. (Courtesy of Jarrod Shields, in honor of Melvin Shields)
In 1870, three of Melvinia's four children, including Dolphus, were listed on the census as "mulatto." One child was born four years after emancipation, which indicates that the relationship with Charles continued after slavery. Charles married after the war and had other children. Melvinia continued to work as a farm laborer on land adjacent to that of Charles Shields.
Sometime in her thirties or forties, census records indicate that Melvinia moved from the Shields plantation in Rex to reunite with former slaves from her childhood on the Patterson estate in South Carolina. She settled with Mariah and Bolus Easley in Kingston. Melvinia's son, Dolphus, married one of the Easley's daughters, Alice, First Lady Michelle Obama's great-great-grandmother.
Melvinia next appears in the census living in Kingston, under her married name Mattie McGruder. Employed as a midwife, she shared a home with her adult children and four grandchildren. According to the late Miss Ruth Applin of Kingston, who not only knew Melvinia but married her grandson Emory, “Mattie McGruder [was] a loving, spiritual woman seen often with her Bible and singing hymns.”
During the more than four decades that she lived in Kingston, Melvinia worked as a midwife, a job that made her a pillar of the black community. Melvinia aided in the birth of countless children as well as caring for her grandchildren and other relatives. Her son Dolphus moved to Birmingham, where he started a family and became a successful businessman. Eventually his descendants settled in Chicago, where his great-great-granddaughter, Michelle Robinson, was born. Michelle later married Barack Obama, who in 2008 was elected president of the United States.