Examining Michelle Obama's Lowcountry roots

April 4, 2009 

Tiny fingers stitched a quilt Wednesday morning in a Georgetown elementary school up the South Carolina coastline. But they were actually piecing together something much larger, something that seems too big to be true.

Their "story quilt" depicts First Lady Michelle Obama's family journey from a Lowcountry slave shack to the White House.

Her Georgetown County roots are now bringing worldwide attention to the unique story the Lowcountry has to tell. And it's bringing a burst of pride to the "saltwater Geechee" people, who for generations were looked down upon and who often looked upon their past with shame.

"Gullah to the bone," says a laughing Vermelle "Bunny" Rodrigues, who helped the children with the quilt. "I have a T-shirt that says that, and that's exactly what Michelle Obama is. Gullah to the bone!"

It's a lineage Michelle did not know completely herself before her husband ran for president. Barack Obama's campaign hired genealogists at the University of South Florida to dig into the family roots that brought young Michelle to Georgetown for summer stays with her grandparents.

Reporters from Washington, London and Chicago helped fill in gaps. Michelle Obama told The Washington Post she found it to be a process of "uncovering the shame, digging out the pride that is part of that story -- so that other folks feel comfortable about embracing the beauty and the tangled nature of the history of this country."

It left President Barack Obama saying his wife is "the most quintessentially American woman I know."

Here in the Lowcountry -- where at one time slaves outnumbered whites 9-to-1 -- the first lady from Chicago now looks quintessentially local.

"I believe she could play as pivotal a role as her husband could, if not more so," U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn told the Post before Obama's historic election. "It would allow us an opportunity to get beyond some of our preconceived notions, some of our prejudices."

Gullah/Geechee Corridor

At the National Park Service's Charles Pinckney Center in Charleston, Michael Allen says the revelations about Michelle Obama are a major step on a journey to preserve, protect, interpret and ensure the sustainability of the Gullah-Geechee culture that hugs the coast from Wilmington, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla.

Allen is coordinator of the new Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, the only one of America's 50 national heritage areas that deals specifically with the African-American experience. He sees an up-tick in interest in the story from around the globe. And he foresees a day when the first lady mightshare a podium here in the Lowcountry with her family, Clyburn and the corridor commission, now chaired by Emory Campbell of Hilton Head Island, former director of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island.

The commission's next meeting will be at the Bethel AME Church in downtown Georgetown, where Michelle Obama's grandparents were members and where she stumped for her husband's election in January 2008.

On that day, Michelle and her brother, Craig Robinson, sipped iced tea with relatives at the Robinson family home and gazed at family photos on a piano.

There, they would hear the stories that the children stitched into the quilt last week. The children, who were making a replica of a 90-by-90-inch quilt now on display in Washington, are not much older than Michelle was when she started coming to the Lowcountry, where crickets kept her up at night and fresh venison made her sick.

The family tree

Panels in the quilt show a slave cabin, like the ones that still exist and have been restored at Friendfield Plantation outside Georgetown. That's where Michelle Obama's great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, would have been born into slavery about 1850. Michelle has not yet seen the cabins and says that part of her heritage was never discussed when she was growing up.

Another quilt panel shows her great-grandfather, Fraser Robinson Sr., as a child when a limb fell on him. That would lead to the amputation of his left arm and sear his story into the first lady's mind.

As a boy, he was taken in by a white family. He saw education being stressed, but at age 16, Fraser Robinson still couldn't read. As an adult, he taught himself to read and write and worked as a lumber-mill laborer and cobbler. On a Georgetown street corner, he sold the "Palmetto Leader," a black newspaper from Columbia, and the "Grit" newspaper. He took any extra copies home to the large house he built in Georgetown and made his children read them.

Fraser Robinson Jr., Michelle Obama's grandfather, left Georgetown on a train for Chicago during the height of the oppressive Jim Crow era. He and his wife would retire back in Georgetown, the proud home of other Gullah stars, Chubby Checker (Ernest Evans) and Joseph H. Rainey, the first black to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Fraser Robinson III, Michelle's father, was the first of the clan to be born in Chicago. He did not get a college education, but he and his wife, Marian, worked hard to lay the groundwork for their children to get the finest educations America has to offer.

Michelle Obama told the Post, "If the patriarch in our lineage was one-armed Fraser, a shoemaker with one arm, an entrepreneur, someone who was able to own property, and with sheer effort and determination was able to build a life in this town -- that must have been the messages that my grandfather got."

It must be the message that pushed Michelle Robinson Obama through Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and into the White House.

"That's the Gullah in her," Bunny Rodrigues said from her Gullah Ooman Museum in Pawleys Island. And with that comes another Gullah legacy: a hearty laugh.

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