Rachel L. Swarns is a journalist, author and professor, who writes about race and race relations as a contributing writer for The New York Times. Her articles about Georgetown University’s roots in slavery touched off a national conversation about American universities and their ties to this painful period of history.
Ms. Swarns has reported on immigration, presidential politics and First Lady Michelle Obama and her role in the Obama White House. She has reported from Russia, Cuba, Guatemala and southern Africa, where she served as the Times’ Johannesburg bureau chief. She has also served as a Metro columnist in New York City. She is currently an associate professor of journalism at New York University.
She is the author of “American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama,” published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in June 2012. “American Tapestry” was ranked as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012 by The NYT Book Review and as one of the “year’s outstanding books for public library collections” by Booklist.
She is also a co-author of “Unseen: Unpublished Black History from The New York Times Photo Archives,” which was published by Black Dog & Leventhal in October 2017. Her forthcoming book about Georgetown’s roots in slavery will be published by Random House.
Ms. Swarns also serves as an academic advisor to the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., which is launching an exhibit based on her book about Michelle Obama’s ancestors.
Q+A with Rachel
What was the inspiration for “American Tapestry?”
I was covering Michelle Obama for The New York Times in 2009 when a genealogist called with fascinating news: She had discovered that the First Lady’s great-great-great grandmother was a slave girl named Melvinia and that her great-great-great grandfather was a white man whose identity was a mystery. Soon, I was on a plane, heading to Birmingham, to find out what I could about Melvinia’s biracial son, Dolphus. I pored over historical records and trekked through an overgrown cemetery searching for Dolphus’ tombstone. I never found his grave, but I vividly remember stopping short in the middle of that solemn place. In that moment, I realized that there was nothing I’d rather be doing than hunting through the nation’s history. After the article about Melvinia and Dolphus ran in The New York Times, an editor at Harper Collins contacted me about writing this book.
What time period does the book cover?
I started with Mrs. Obama’s four grandparents and followed their family lines as far back as I could. At least one of the First Lady’s white ancestors is believed to have fought in the Revolutionary War; other mixed-race ancestors appear in documents that date back to the mid-1800s. I traced their lives in the South during the 19th century and their migration to Chicago in the early 20th century. The narrative mostly ends after World War II. This is a work of history. My book does not focus on Mrs. Obama’s life in the White House.
You researched dozens of Mrs. Obama’s ancestors. Do you have any favorites?
I found so many fascinating people in Mrs. Obama’s family tree. There were runaways who escaped from slavery. There were black and white soldiers who fought in America’s wars and struggled afterward to raise their families. Phoebe Moten Johnson traveled to four cities by the time she was 28 and was among the first to glimpse the skyscrapers of Chicago. Rosella Cohen Robinson guided her children through the Depression and left behind tantalizing hints of a family link to a synagogue that would become the birthplace of the Jewish Reform movement. Fraser Robinson Sr., a one-armed dynamo, navigated the racial riptides in South Carolina. Dolphus Shields would become one of the best-known black men in Birmingham, while his younger brother, Henry, struggled to make his mark in Georgia. I was particularly moved by the story of Phoebe, the First Lady’s paternal great-grandmother, who tried to follow her dreams despite the countless obstacles that stood in her way.
Did you interview First Lady Michelle Obama for your book?
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to interview Mrs. Obama. She has a policy of not participating with book projects. But I did interview members of her family, including an aunt, an uncle, a great aunt, a great uncle and several cousins who shared their family stories.
What were the challenges that you faced in trying to uncover the stories of Mrs. Obama’s ancestors?
Many of Mrs. Obama’s ancestors have been dead for more than a century. Even Mrs. Obama’s relatives could only go back so far in recounting what they knew. And what they knew was limited by the culture of silence that had pervaded the black and white branches of her family tree. People didn’t talk much about slavery, racial violence, discrimination or relationships – or rape — across color lines. They focused on moving forward, not on looking back. Historical records could only tell part of the story. In the end, I turned to DNA testing to identify Mrs. Obama’s white ancestors, using 21st century technology to solve that 19th century mystery.
Who will find this story appealing?
Anyone who is interested in American history or genealogy will find the First Lady’s family saga fascinating. Many people have been captivated by President Obama’s heritage. He is, after all, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. But Mrs. Obama’s family story is, in many ways, more reflective of the American experience. She has European ancestors who emigrated here. She has African ancestors who were enslaved here. She has forbears who were mixed race and some who appear to have had Native American ancestry. As you read about Melvinia and the white man who fathered her son, you’re also learning about what life was like for blacks and whites in the antebellum South and during the Civil War and during other pivotal moments in the nation’s history.
What are you hoping that readers will learn from the book?
I hope that the book will encourage people to talk more openly about slavery and how that wrenching period of American history still reverberates in this country, shaping countless contemporary family lines, whether black, white or in-between. I also hope that people will be inspired to uncover their own family histories. What I loved most about Mrs. Obama’s ancestors is that they were ordinary people who loved, struggled, strived and found their way forward under enormously difficult circumstances. Many of us share those kinds of stories. We only have to start digging to find them.