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First lady's family tree has deep roots in Henry County
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First lady Michelle Obama delivers the keynote speech to the Democratic National Committee's Women’s Leadership Forum 16th Annual National Issues Conference on May 7 in Washington. (AP)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

By ELIZA WINSTON - Bulletin Staff Writer

First lady Michelle Obama has strong family ties in Henry County - including some distant relatives still living in the area, genealogists have discovered.

"She's got more cousins per capita in this neck of the woods than anywhere else," said genealogist Megan Smolenyak.

Smolenyak, a family history expert, recently researched the first lady's roots at the Bassett Historical Center. She began the research at the request of the New York Times, she said, which was working on a story about the first lady's ancestry.

Smolenyak continued her research after the Times published its stories, which did not include information on Michelle Obama's roots in the area.

Through her research in Bassett, Smolenyak discovered that the entire maternal side of Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, can be traced to Henry and Pittsylvania counties. That means that a full quarter of the first lady's roots are from this area, Smolenyak said. Although some relatives were from Pittsylvania County, most were and are from Henry County, she added.

Smolenyak found that Obama is related to families with surnames Jumper, Wade, Tinsley and Morehead. Many Jumpers moved to North Carolina, she said, but many Tinsleys and Wades are still living locally.

Smolenyak said the first lady is "what some would call tri-racial: She is of Native American, African American and European descent." The Jumpers were of Native American descent, and Smolenyak said the European relatives came from a branch of Obama's family tree not found in Henry County.

The first lady's direct ancestors left this area decades ago. Smolenyak said the Jumpers moved to North Carolina in the early 20th century. Around that time, one of Obama's grandmothers, Rebecca Jumper, was sent to Chicago to live with relatives, Smolenyak said.

Other relatives took other paths. The first lady grew up in Chicago, which is where she, President Obama and their two daughters were living before they moved to the White House.

When local genealogist Beverly Millner learned about Smolenyak's research, he decided to track down Obama's more recent living and deceased relatives in Henry County. Using Smolenyak's research, Millner searched for information in a book he previously wrote and researched titled "Something to Build On: Genealogy of African American Families of Henry County Virginia and Surrounding Area with Surnames A-Z."�

Millner used the research to create a chart filled with photographs of local living and deceased relatives of the first lady, as well as the names Smolenyak uncovered. For many of the people Millner contacted, the news of their White House relation came as quite a surprise.

"Well, I was shocked, to say the least, but I was elated. I didn't have the slightest idea. I told my wife and sister, but I wanted it to be a surprise for my kids," said Tyrone Wade, 63, of Martinsville, who shares ancestors with the first lady. Wade is retired and has three adult children who will soon find out about their relative in the White House.

"I was surprised. I kept asking, "˜Are you sure?'" said Herbert Wade, 67, of Axton, also a distant relative.

He said he is semi-retired but still runs Wade's Upholstry shop. He told his two adult daughters, both of whom live out of state. "Everybody is excited" about the news, he said.

Retired Axton resident Naomi Wade Moyer, 70, said when Millner told her she is related to Michelle Obama, she "didn't know what to think."�

"I knew we had to be some kin to that lady because she acts too much like me," Moyer joked.

Her family, however, is still doubtful. Moyer said she told her siblings, Marion Wade Moyer, Ethel Marie Wade, Algie C. Wade and Lester F. Wade, about their connection to Obama, but they "didn't believe" her. Moyer said she researched her mother's family history, but she had never been able to find enough information on her father's side, which she now knows is the side related to Obama.

Millner's chart will be displayed at the Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI) museum at 504 Fayette St. He said he hopes people will stop by to find out if they too are related to the first lady.

He added that if visitors realize they are related to someone on the chart, they should give their contact information to someone working at the museum.

The museum is open between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Tuesdays through Thursdays and on Fridays and Saturdays by appointment.


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