Photo by Curt Yeomans
Clayton County officials, including commission chairman Eldrin Bell and vice-chairman Wole Ralph, unveil a monument dedicated to Melvinia Shields, great-great-great-grandmother of Michelle Obama, Tuesday in Historic Rex Village.
Michael Jackson was right — it really “don’t matter if you’re black or white.”
At least that is what Albertville, Ala. resident Jarrod Shields and Kingston resident David Applin said they found out through a 2009 New York Times article on First Lady Michelle Obama’s family history.
The article started off a snowball effect that included DNA testing of various family members. It ultimately revealed Shields — a Caucasian — and Applin — an African-American — and Obama were all related through a former Clayton County slave, Melvinia Shields.
It is a uniquely American family bond that has been embraced by both Caucasian and African-American members of the Shields family.
“We kind of suspected [there were African-American relatives] and then the article came out in ‘09, and then it was still up in the air until the DNA testing,” Jarrod Shields said. “When the DNA testing came out, we knew for sure.”
The Caucasian and African-American members of the Shields family came together for their first official gathering Tuesday. Clayton County officials brought the family together for the unveiling and dedication of a monument to Melvinia Shields in Historic Rex Village. She came to what is now the Rex area as a slave in the 1850s.
Author Rachel L. Swarns also conducted a book signing for her book “American Tapestry: The Story of Black, White and the Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama” at the National Archives after the dedication ceremony. Swarns also spoke at the dedication ceremony.
“It’s beyond words,” said Nellie Margaret Harris Applin, David Applin’s wife. She also is the family historian. “I have lived for something special like this to bring history forward. It’s just special,” she said.
Clayton County Economic Development Specialist Tamara Patridge said the memorial cost $6,500 to purchase and install in Rex. The monument was paid for with a Tourism Product Development Grant from the Georgia Department of Economic Development, she said.
Bruce Green, the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s director of tourism product development, likened the Shields story to a companion piece for Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind.” Like the novel, the Shields story touches on a period of early Clayton County history, and together they provide a well-rounded view of the mid-19th Century community.
Green said his office has been working with Clayton County officials since 2009 to revitalize Historic Rex Village. He said they decided to capitalize on the connection between Melvinia Shields and Michelle Obama.
“We have witnessed this afternoon, in a yard in this town, the distant members of this family, black and white, coming together and talking and getting to know one another,” Green said. “It’s just amazing.”
Clayton County Commissioner Sonna Singleton said the county’s economic development department researched the link between Rex and Michelle Obama after it came to light. Her commission district includes Rex.
“We just thought it would be a good opportunity to tie in the link between the first lady’s ancestors,” Singleton said. “Rex Village, as you can see, is helped now because we’re on a national stage. It ties to our federal and state archives that are just up the road, and we want people to be encouraged to do more, to find out about their history.”
Officials touted the discovery of Obama’s relation to Melvinia Shields as an important boost for the county’s efforts to build a local genealogical industry. Clayton County economic development officials are working to someday create a niche for African-American genealogy. They are focusing their efforts around the Morrow-based National Archives at Atlanta and Georgia Archives.
“Using national and state genealogical resources, they were able to tie Mrs. Shields back to a specific locale in Clayton County,” said Jim McSweeney, regional administrator for the National Archives at Atlanta.
“This at a minimum increases the fact that someone who was forgotten about — there wasn’t a connection until President [Barack] Obama came into the picture — and the fact that we used genealogical and family history resources to celebrate this day,” McSweeney said. “It means anybody can do it.”
It is still difficult to research African-American family history to dates that pre-date the end of slavery. McSweeney said archived records such as slave censuses from the 1860s and the growth of state and county genealogy groups, however, have increased the chances that those older family ties can be discovered.
“Genealogy is the number one hobby in the world today, particularly for Americans,” McSweeney said. “People are looking through family histories, family papers, letters and Bibles. That’s serving as the genesis to start family history all over again.”
Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said the dedication of the Melvinia Shields monument goes a long way in showing how of a treasure the state and federal archives are for the county.
“It goes to showing what an investment from the federal, state and local levels can do — not only to honor a person, but to establish for the future an economic development strategy that will revitalize this neighborhood,” Bell said.