Michelle Obama’s Ancestors: Fraser Robinson

This is the fifth in a series about the ancestry of the First Lady. The previous segments can be found here:

Michelle Obama's Ancestors: Chicago Beginnings (part 1)

Michelle Obama's Ancestors: The Great Migration (part 2)

Michelle Obama's Ancestors: The Great Mixing (part 3)

Michelle Obama's Ancestors: LaVaughn Johnson (part 4)

It’s providential for Michelle’s sake that LaVaughn ever met Fraser C. Robinson, Jr. because he would have much preferred to never leave the South.  “Bird of passage” is a term used to refer to an immigrant who never intended to remain in America.  Rather, these were typically men who came here planning to earn enough money to go home and be the richest man in the village.  While that might have an opportunistic tinge to it, underlying these intentions was simply a strong attachment to home.  These were individuals who loved the place of their birth and the extended families that nurtured them there.  Consequently, round trips were a key element of their lives.  Though he was a migrant rather than an immigrant, this term applies to Fraser.

Georgetown, South Carolina was the center of his universe.  Little wonder, given that the Robinsons had been living there for generations.  Although it’s doubtful he would have chosen to do so, he could have wandered down the road to see the slave cabins (still standing today) on the land where his grandfather Jim Robinson once toiled.  But his father, Fraser Sr., a one-armed kiln operator, had taught himself to read and succeeded in carving out a decent living for his family.

The oldest of ten children born to Fraser and Rosella, Fraser Jr. was the proverbial big fish in a small pond where he came from.  Widely regarded as a gifted student and speaker, he might have had greater opportunities in life had he not reached the brink of adulthood just as the Great Depression hit.  He tried his best to make it in Georgetown working for a local lumber plant, but when it closed in 1932, his prospects diminished considerably.  For Fraser, the Great Depression would become the reason for his participation in the Great Migration.

Though many from the Carolinas found themselves drawn up the East coast to New York or Philadelphia, Fraser opted for Chicago for the company of fellow Georgetowners who made it their second home.  He was particularly close with the Funnye family, headed by a widow who also hailed from Georgetown.  Her four children joined the same Ben Billiken branch as the oldest sons Fraser had upon marrying LaVaughn, and perhaps because the link to home meant so much to him, he helped ensure that the Funnyes actually became family when he introduced his kid sister Vernelle to the widow’s youngest son, Capers.  They married and had a son, Capers C. Funnye, Jr., who probably surprised his South Carolina elders when he grew up to become a well-known rabbi.  But then again, Georgetown is home to the second oldest community of Jews in South Carolina with a presence extending back to at least the 1760s, and Fraser’s own mother was born a Cohen with rumors of a Jewish ancestor or owner in her past.

For employment, Fraser worked for the WPA during the Depression and later enlisted for a three-year stint with the Army.  After this, he settled into a job with the U.S. postal service, where he would remain for 30 years until his retirement in 1974.

At that point, after roughly four decades in Chicago, he finally returned to Georgetown to live out the remainder of his years.  This longed-for homecoming for Fraser triggered the visits to South Carolina that Michelle would later recall punctuating her youth.  

(to be continued)

Michelle Obama’s Ancestors: LaVaughn Johnson

This is the fourth in a series about the ancestry of the First Lady. The previous segments can be found here:

Michelle Obama's Ancestors: Chicago Beginnings (part 1)

Michelle Obama's Ancestors: The Great Migration (part 2)

Michelle Obama's Ancestors: The Great Mixing (part 3)

Of Michelle’s grandparents, LaVaughn Johnson was the most like her.  A native Chicagoan, she was an early product of the mixing effect of the Great Migration with parents of radically different histories.  Like many who eventually settled in Chicago, her family’s itinerary included a stopover in St. Louis, Missouri where her oldest three brothers were born, but by 1910, the Johnsons were ensconced in the Windy City.  LaVaughn was born in 1915, around the middle of at least 11 children.  While a family of that size would probably get its own reality show today, at the time, they would have been just another large brood.

As their wanderings suggest, LaVaughn’s parents were the adventurous type who were willing to move for new opportunities.  Her father, James Preston Johnson, was the most nomadic of Michelle’s ancestors, starting out in Louisiana in a town near the Mississippi border, and meandering his way north.  Over the years, he tried on a variety of occupations including cobbler (a trade he passed on to several of his sons), Pullman porter, and Baptist pastor, and it was likely work prospects that motivated some of his moves.  

His travels would eventually take him to Illinois where he married Phoebe Moten.  Though only 20 years old, Phoebe had already been married before, having wed and lost her first husband in a span of less than six months.  The baby of her family, she was born and raised in Villa Ridge, Illinois to parents who settled there in the 1860s after living in Kentucky and Missouri.  That Phoebe was well-loved by LaVaughn and her other children can be seen from the fact that she’s one of very few of Michelle’s ancestors who has a tombstone.  Simple, with just her name, years of birth and death, and the word “mother,” the stone sits oddly isolated today, though well-maintained and surrounded by manicured grass.     

The last born of Michelle’s grandparents, LaVaughn lived until 2002.  She married Fraser Robinson, Jr. in 1934 and had two children – Fraser III and Nomenee – in short order (with more to follow later, including a son who sadly died as an infant and was buried at the now notorious Burr Oak Cemetery). 

LaVaughn and Fraser were clearly the kind of parents who had high expectations of their children.  In 1923, the Chicago Defender created the Bud Billiken Club to promote the betterment of African American children in Chicago by encouraging pride and celebrating values and qualities such as health, scholarship, and a strong work ethic.  Thousands of children enrolled and had their names published in the paper, among them some of Michelle’s relatives.  But the Robinsons took it a step further, signing up Michelle’s father, Fraser III, as a member of a Billiken branch club called the “Willing Workers” before his second birthday. 

The club spawned the well-known Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, now the second largest parade in the country.  Little did then-toddler Fraser know that his future son-in-law, Barack Obama, would serve as Grand Marshal 70 years after his hopeful parents had enlisted him.
(to be continued)

Michelle Obama’s Ancestors: The Great Mixing

This is the third in a series about the ancestry of the First Lady. The previous segments can be found here:

Michelle Obama's Ancestors: Chicago Beginnings (part 1)

Michelle Obama's Ancestors: The Great Migration (part 2)


Among the half million African Americans who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration were a number of Michelle’s relatives, and they hailed from Alabama, Mississippi,  Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and the southern part of Illinois.  In fact, of all the southern states, only Florida, Arkansas and Texas did not hold a piece of her family’s past.

In a sense, the Great Migration could also be considered a “great mixing,” and Michelle’s ancestry includes as much diversity as anyone’s.  With the exception of individuals of recent African or Caribbean origin, most African Americans have deep roots in America extending back several centuries.  Enslaved Africans were brought to America as early as the 1620s and almost all were here by 1825, so family trees typically reach back 200-400 years on this continent.  In spite of this, by the time the Great Migration began, there were still pockets of what might be termed African homogeneity in the South. 

It’s a harsh reality that some slave traders and owners had regional preferences.  For instance, many in South Carolina and Georgia preferred slaves from the rice-growing region of West Africa (roughly the coastal area stretching from Senegal down to Liberia) because they were regarded as being better suited to the climate and work, as well as more resistant to malaria.  As a result, it was possible for the majority of slaves associated with a particular plantation or locality to have roots that would, if we had the means to follow the trail, trace mostly back to present-day Sierre Leone, for example (DNA testing now provides at least some prospects in this regard.).  When the descendants of these somewhat insular communities joined the steady stream of traffic heading north, it was inevitable that they would meet, mingle and marry people from other states who sported different backgrounds – and that’s before factoring in the white and Native ancestry many also carried.  Consequently, the Great Migration produced a considerable mixing of everything from traditions to gene pools.

Michelle is very much a legacy of both the Great Migration and the inherent mixing that accompanied it.  In fact, it’s almost as if an unseen force reached down with impressive regularity – at the rate of a branch of her family tree per decade – to scoop up another eventual ancestor from the South to bring to Chicago.  It also happened to be a ladies-first situation with her future grandmothers’ families leading the way. 

The parents and half dozen older siblings of LaVaughn Delores Johnson, Michelle’s paternal grandmother, were the Chicago pioneers, arriving in the first decade of the twentieth century and bringing with them a mélange of Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee roots.  Her mother’s family had resided in Illinois (though not Chicago) since the 1860s, while her father spent his early days in Louisiana and Mississippi.  Second on the scene was her maternal grandmother, Rebecca Jumper.  Virginia-born, but taken to North Carolina as an infant, Rebecca was sent North in the 1910s to be raised by an aunt and uncle.  Next up was maternal grandfather Purnell Shields who came from Birmingham, Alabama with his mother, sister and step-father in the 1920s.  His mother Annie was the only great-grandparent Michelle would actually know, and Michelle and her family would eventually live in the second floor apartment of the home owned by Robbie Lee, Purnell’s sister.  Though this family came from Alabama, their heritage extended back through Georgia and ultimately to South Carolina and Virginia.  Bringing up the rear of this decade-by-decade migration was Fraser Robinson, the grandfather whose surname would become Michelle’s maiden name.  Born and raised in South Carolina, Fraser made his appearance in Chicago in the early 1930s.  Last to arrive, he was also the only one to return to the place of his birth, retiring to his hometown after 40 years of cold winters.

The merging of these assorted branches came about through the marriages of LaVaughn to Fraser and Rebecca to Purnell – and of their children, Fraser III and Marian, some decades later – but each limb of Michelle’s family tree arrived in Chicago with its own past and created a bit of history there before Michelle was born.  What follows is a brief introduction to the cast of ancestors who would unknowingly bequeath not only their DNA, but also a combination of their habits, beliefs, aptitudes and hopes to a future First Lady. 

 (to be continued)

Michelle Obama’s Ancestors: Chicago Beginnings

      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)