ENSLAVED GIRL MELVINIA SHIELDS CASTS A SHADOW TO THE WHITE HOUSE
Clayton County’s picturesque village of Rex recently held a celebration of the life, legacy and destiny of Melvinia Shields. Melvinia’s great-great-great granddaughter would become America’s first African-American First Lady. A monument dedicated to Melvinia was unveiled in the village of Rex on June 26.
There was a festival atmosphere in Clayton County’s bucolic village of Rex on June 26 with tents, banners and live gospel music. Hundreds of people came out basking in the bright, warm weather to witness the unveiling of the Melvinia Shields monument and the release of the book “American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama” by author Rachel Swarns that both serves to connect Rex and tell the story of the family ties to Michelle Obama and the White House.
Interest began in the fall of 2009 when an article was published in the New York Times revealing genealogical research that linked a young slave girl, Melvinia as the great-great-great grandmother of Michelle Obama, with the small farm on the outskirts of a village that would later be known as Rex, Georgia. Since the 1840s, Rex was the center of a farming community with a large grist mill, a cotton gin and a few store fronts. It’s the sort of picturesque community you would see in a postcard with a babbling brook and mill wheel turning slowly in the current.
Melvinia was bequeathed in a will from her South Carolina owner to a relatively prosperous Clayton County farm family headed by Henry Shields in 1850 when she was about six years old. The Shieldses grew cotton, corn and other staples, and owned two other slaves. In 1860, at the dawn of the Civil War, Melvinia gave birth to her first child, Dolphus, the father being the Shields’s oldest son Charles (according to DNA research revealed in the book), a white man. 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 that would reassure the reelection of Abraham Lincoln.
According to the 1870 census, Melvinia was employed as a farm laborer, washwoman, maid, and was the mother of four children, three of whom were listed as mulatto. She continued to live on the Clayton County farm of Charles Shields until the end of the 19th century.
Melvinia next appears in the census living in Kingston, Bartow County, Georgia, 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.” Melvinia died at the age of 94 and is buried in the churchyard at Queen Chapel Methodist Church in Kingston.
The monument unveiling ceremony in Rex was followed by an author’s presentation and book signing at the National Archives in Morrow, a fitting location due to the genealogical and family records playing such a vital role in bringing the story to light. More than 500 people were in attendance, including the Georgia Department of Economic Development Tourism Division and Clayton County officials who have been working on the Melvinia Shields project for several years. At the end of the program, the black and white members of the Shields family who came from around the Southeast gathered for group photographs and conciliatory remarks to cap off a truly uplifting occasion.