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‘Purses with a Purpose’

Scholarship fund-raiser to honor Obama’s ancestor

Photo by Jeylin White
 Karol Osborne (from left), Joyce Baul, Gail Buckner and Marie Barber, model a few of the fancy purses that will be sold to raise money for a newly launched scholarship, called the “Historical Significance Scholarship,” in honor of Melvinia Shields, the great-great-great grandmother of U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama.

Photo by Jeylin White Karol Osborne (from left), Joyce Baul, Gail Buckner and Marie Barber, model a few of the fancy purses that will be sold to raise money for a newly launched scholarship, called the “Historical Significance Scholarship,” in honor of Melvinia Shields, the great-great-great grandmother of U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama.

“There’s a new scholarship in town!” said Gail Buckner, the former state legislator who represented Clayton County in the Georgia General Assembly for nearly two decades.

She and 11 of her friends have started a scholarship fund in honor of U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s great-great-great grandmother, Melvinia Shields, who had roots in Clayton County.

The group is calling the award the “Historical Significance Scholarship.”

“We have chosen to honor the historical fact that First Lady Michelle Obama’s ancestor lived in Clayton County, by creating a scholarship in both their names,” said Buckner.

Buckner was a Democratic member of the Georgia State Senate, representing the state's 44th senate district, from 2009 to 2011. Prior to that, she served 16 years in the State House of Representatives.

According to Buckner, Melvinia Shields’ roots in Clayton County can be traced back to around 1850, when she was 6 years old and living in the county as an enslaved child. She was given her freedom as an adult.

“This [scholarship] is going to be a major plus in our community,” said Buckner. “So many people do not know this story [about Melvinia Shields.] She was clearly a woman of strength and character.”

In an effort to raise money to fund the scholarship, founders and members of the board of directors are hosting the group’s first fund-raising event, which is being called “Purses with a Purpose.” It will be held Thursday, March 29, from noon, to 7 p.m., at the Old Arts Clayton Building, located at 104 McDonough Street, in Jonesboro.

“We will offer spring purses for sale,” said Marie Barber, one of the founders and a board member. “We’ll also have an extensive assortment of garden art and other gifts.”

Barber said the scholarship is important because it provides an opportunity to educate the public about the county’s heritage, and have an open discussion “without any animosity.”

“When Gail told me about what she wanted to do, I had to be involved,” Barber said. “[This scholarship] is so significant to me as an African-American woman.”

Buckner said the scholarship will be awarded to a student living in Clayton County, but specifically in the Rex, upper Jonesboro, and the Morrow areas. These areas, she added, are the places in which Melvinia Shields lived.

After the fund-raiser, Buckner said, she hopes the group will have enough money to give away more than one scholarship to deserving students. “We will be accepting donations from the community,” she said.

For students interested in applying for the scholarship, both Buckner and Barber said they will be required to write an essay on how having the first African-American First Lady is significant to them.

Buckner said the group is also in various stages of organizing other fund-raising events, and that one of them is likely to take place in May.