Nightly News | October 08, 2009
>>> own family until now.
>>> it is estimated well over a third of african- americans have white ancestors in the family, dating back to the era of slavery in this country. genealogical searches can be arduous and painful. and now a search has led to the first lady. michelle obama learned recently what the rest of us learned just today, about her own family. and as john yang reports from chicago , how her past intersects with a painful chapter in american history .
>> the first lady of the united states , michelle obama .
>> reporter: first lady my schill obama's remarkable path to the white house has now been traced back five generations, more than 150 years to a young girl who was a slave in south carolina . in documents, she's described only as the negro girl, melvinia. her original slave owner died in the 1850s and willed melvinia, valued at $475, to family in georgia. there, a white man, his name lost to history, fathered melvinia's first child, michelle obama 's great, great, grandfather.
>> her story really resonates with a lot of families. she always had an inkling, and her family always had an inkling that there was a white ancestor somewhere.
>> reporter: the new york times" documented how melvinia's first born, dolphus shields became a successful businessman in alabama. one of his grandsons, purnell shields, like so many african- americans in the south, moved to chicago , a migration documented by the influential black newspaper "the chicago defender ."
>> it made chicago the center of the african-american community in the united states .
>> reporter: purnell shields had ten children including a daughter named marianne. she went on to marry a city worker. they raised a family of their own -- a son craig, now a college basketball coach, and a daughter michelle. while president obama 's black kenyan father and white kansas-born mother are celebrated as an example of american multiculturism, michelle obama 's family history illustrates another part of the nation's story.
>> for many african- americans when we trace our ancestors, we're able to go back to only a certain period, maybe the mid- 1800s , and then we hit a brick wall .
>> now she has a whole other set of ancestors to be proud of because they helped her get to where she is.
>> reporter: a family tree that's the essence of the african- american experience . john yang , nbc news, chicago .