Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama’s presence in the White House is historic. A hundred years from now, scholars and school children will still be studying the flurry of firsts associated with her. Her husband Barack Obama is our country’s first African American president, but Michelle, along with her mother Marian and daughters Malia and Sasha, are the first descendants of slaves to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as members of the first family. This is brief introduction to their ancestral past. It’s the mixing of African, European and Native American blood. Their family history is that of the American South and the Great Migration. Many of their forebears were enslaved, but some were free long before Emancipation. Their story, in short, is remarkably universal and quintessentially American, and I suspect many will occasionally catch glimpses of their own families in what follows.
By Chicago standards, January 17, 1964 was less frigid than it could have been. Windy as expected, but partly sunny, temperatures would reach about 40 degrees that Friday. But that was the last thing on the minds of Fraser and Marian Robinson as they welcomed their daughter, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, into their lives.
Fraser and Marian were both Chicago natives, born almost exactly two years apart in the city they would call home until Marian would eventually join Michelle in the White House – a scenario that probably seemed less likely at the time than the notion of recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. They had married in October 1960 and become parents for the first time in April 1962, so Michelle was also greeted by big brother Craig, whom she would one day describe as “my mentor, my protector, and my lifelong friend.”
On the surface, the world seemed a more innocent place in 1964. The Beatles hit the Billboard Chart for the first time the day after Michelle was born with a song called “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Julie Andrews won the Best Actress Oscar for her singing nanny role in Mary Poppins, and the Easy-Bake Oven (soon to be a favorite of Michelle’s) was introduced. And all things considered, life was indeed going well for the Robinson family.
Michelle’s arrival capped perhaps one of the most memorable weeks in their lives as Fraser had just obtained a job as a “station laborer” for the city’s water department three days earlier. Essentially a janitorial position, it offered security, opportunity for advancement, and a salary of $5,748. At the time, only nine percent of Chicago’s African American families earned $10,000 or more a year, a pay level that Fraser would attain by 1969 through a series of promotions. Soon to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Fraser would have even more reason to value his new position, but for the purposes of his young family, what mattered most is that his income was sufficient to support them all. Marian had the option and chose to be a stay-at-home mother.
With Michelle’s birth, the Robinsons became a nuclear family of four and would remain so, but scattered around Chicago that day were four grandparents and one great-grandmother for the newborn. Of these five elders, only one – the grandmother from whom Michelle would inherit her distinctive middle name of LaVaughn – had also been born in Chicago. Like Michelle, LaVaughn Delores Johnson Robinson could be a considered a consequence of the Great Migration. The others had begun their lives in Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia and were part of it.
(to be continued)