Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (née Robinson); was born January 17, 1964 and is an American attorney and author who was the First Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017. She is married to the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. She was the first African-American first lady.
She was born to Fraser Robinson III (1935–1991), a city water plant employee and Democratic precinct captain, and Marian Shields Robinson (b. July 30, 1937), a secretary at Spiegel’s catalog store. Her mother was a full-time homemaker until Michelle entered high school.
The Robinson and Shields families trace their roots to pre-Civil War African Americans in the American South. On her father’s side, she is descended from the Gullah people of South Carolina’s Low Country region. Her paternal great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, was born into slavery in 1850 on Friendfield Plantation, near Georgetown, South Carolina. He became a freedman at age 15 after the war. Some of Obama’s paternal family still reside in the Georgetown area. Her grandfather Fraser Robinson, Jr. built his own house in South Carolina. He and his wife LaVaughn (née Johnson) returned to the Low Country from Chicago after retirement.
Among her maternal ancestors was her great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia Shields, born into slavery in South Carolina but sold to Henry Walls Shields, who had a 200-acre farm in Clayton County, Georgia near Atlanta. Melvinia’s first son, Dolphus T. Shields, was biracial and born into slavery around 1860. Based on DNA and other evidence, in 2012 researchers said his father was likely 20-year-old Charles Marion Shields, son of Melvinia’s master. They may have had a continuing relationship, as she had two more mixed-race children and lived near Shields after emancipation, taking his surname (she later changed her surname).
As was often the case, Melvinia did not talk to relatives about Dolphus’s father. Dolphus Shields, with his wife Alice, moved to Birmingham, Alabama after the Civil War. They were great-great-grandparents of Michelle Robinson, whose grandparents had moved to Chicago. Other of their children’s lines migrated to Cleveland, Ohio in the 20th century.
All four of Robinson’s grandparents had multiracial ancestors, reflecting the complex history of the U.S. Her extended family has said that people did not talk about the era of slavery when they were growing up. Her distant ancestry includes Irish, English, and Native American roots. Among her contemporary extended family is Rabbi Capers Funnye; born in Georgetown, South Carolina. Funnye is the son of her grandfather Robinson’s sister and her husband, and he is about 12 years older than Michelle. Funnye converted to Judaism after college. He is a paternal first cousin once-removed.
Robinson’s childhood home was on the upper floor of 7436 South Euclid Avenue in Chicago’s South Shore community area, which her parents rented from her great-aunt, who had the first floor. She was raised in what she describes as a “conventional” home, with “the mother at home, the father at work, dinner around the table”. Her elementary school was down the street. She and her family enjoyed playing games such as Monopoly, reading, and frequently saw extended family on both sides. She played piano, learning from her great-aunt who was a piano teacher. The Robinsons attended services at nearby South Shore United Methodist Church. They used to vacation in a rustic cabin in White Cloud, Michigan. She and her 21-month older brother, Craig, skipped the second grade.
Her father suffered from multiple sclerosis, which had a profound emotional effect on her as she was growing up. She was determined to stay out of trouble and be a good student, which was what her father wanted for her. By sixth grade, Michelle joined a gifted class at Bryn Mawr Elementary School (later renamed Bouchet Academy). She attended Whitney Young High School, Chicago’s first magnet high school, established as a selective enrollment school, where she was a classmate of Jesse Jackson’s daughter Santita. The round-trip commute from the Robinsons’ South Side home to the Near West Side, where the school was located, took three hours. Michelle recalled being fearful of how others would perceive her, but disregarded any negativity around her and used it to fuel her, to keep her going. She recalled facing gender discrimination growing up, saying, for example, that rather than asking her for her opinion on a given subject, people commonly tended to ask what her older brother thought. She was on the honor roll for four years, took advanced placement classes, was a member of the National Honor Society, and served as student council treasurer. She graduated in 1981 as the salutatorian of her class.
Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, Obama is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. In her early legal career, she worked at the law firm Sidley Austin where she met Barack Obama. She subsequently worked in non-profits and as the associate dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago as well as the vice president for Community and External Affairs of the University of Chicago Medical Center. Michelle married Barack in 1992, and they have two daughters.
As first lady, Obama served as a role model for women and worked as an advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy eating. She supported American designers and was considered a fashion icon.
She majored in sociology and minored in African-American studies, graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in 1985 after completing a 99-page senior thesis titled “Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community” under the supervision of Walter Wallace.
Robinson recalls that some of her teachers in high school tried to dissuade her from applying, and that she had been warned against “setting her sights too high”. She believed that her brother’s status as an alumnus—he graduated in 1983, before being hired as a basketball coach at Oregon State University and Brown University—may have helped her during the admission process, but she was resolved to demonstrate her own worth. She has stated that she was overwhelmed during her first year, attributing this to the fact that neither of her parents had graduated from college, and that she had never spent time on a college campus.
The mother of a white roommate reportedly tried (unsuccessfully) to get her daughter reassigned because of Michelle’s race. Robinson said that being at Princeton was the first time she became more aware of her ethnicity and, despite the willingness of her classmates and teachers to reach out to her, she still felt “like a visitor on campus”. There were also issues of economic class.
While at Princeton, Robinson became involved with the Third World Center (now known as the Carl A. Fields Center), an academic and cultural group that supported minority students. She ran their daycare center, which also offered after school tutoring for older children. She challenged the teaching methodology for French because she felt that it should be more conversational. As part of her requirements for graduation, she wrote a sociology thesis, entitled Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community. She researched her thesis by sending a questionnaire to African-American graduates, asking that they specify when and how comfortable they were with their race prior to their enrollment at Princeton and how they felt about it when they were a student and since then. Of the 400 alumni to whom she sent the survey, fewer than 90 responded. Her findings did not support her hope that the black alumni would still identify with the African-American community, even though they had attended an elite university and had the advantages that accrue to its graduates.
Robinson pursued professional study, earning her Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Harvard Law School in 1988.
At Harvard, Robinson participated in demonstrations advocating the hiring of professors who were members of minority groups. She worked for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, assisting low-income tenants with housing cases. She is the third first lady with a postgraduate degree, after her two immediate predecessors, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. She later said that her education gave her opportunities beyond what she had ever imagined.