July 17th, 2009
11:52 PM ET

Tracking Michelle Obama's slave roots

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/LIVING/07/16/michelle.obama.slaveroots/art.slavehome.cnn.jpg caption="This is a former slave house on Friendfield Plantation, where Michelle Obama's family has roots."]
Joe Johns | BIO and Justine Redman

In many places across the South you can walk in the footsteps of slaves, and if you understand the history, it is not a happy journey. The same is true at Friendfield Plantation outside Georgetown, South Carolina.

It's not exactly "Gone With the Wind," but what makes this overgrown 3,300 acres of marsh and pine trees stand out is this: The family of first lady Michelle Obama believes her great-great grandfather was held as a slave here and labored in the mosquito-infested rice fields.

It makes Friendfield Plantation a symbol of something more than servitude. It's the symbol of something that's never happened before: One important segment of an American family's journey from the humiliation of slavery to the very top of the nation's ruling class.

CNN recently was the first television network allowed to visit the plantation and shoot video. It's not a museum. It's just private land, still with shadows of its past.

Friendfield's most distinctive historical feature, perhaps, is the dirt road known as Slave Street.

Keep reading...

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    I thought the article quite good and I am interested in Mrs. Obama's ancestry as a historian. That castle is the physical historical reminder of a slave trade that lasted centuries and dealt in millions of people torn from their villages and homes and forcibly sent to other lands to work and provide for economic riches for their owners. Seeing the place, listening to the sounds, knowing that these poor people were in complete darkness for weeks and then herded onto a ship and stacked below the decks like common freight and none of them knew why any of this was happening, gives you a small way to imagine what they felt, to empathize with them. I'm glad CNN did this special.

    July 17, 2009 at 8:36 pm |
  2. Cruthier

    I am a single mother and grad student in the U.S. and though this story is very interesting, I think everyone is wondering why President Obama is not focusing on what's freaking Americans out right now – the economy. I live in on-campus family housing, and everyone is hoping we'll be able to get jobs after graduation. If not, most of us are thinking of signing up for European educational programs until the U.S. economy shapes up. It's sort of insulting that an African tour is going on while millions of Americans are worried about having enough money to buy food.

    July 17, 2009 at 8:27 pm |
  3. Lalita

    All these years you were being told how important it is to know your roots. There was even a TV serial, Roots. When else will the obamas have such an opportunity again to show their children their ancestral history? I think it is great that the took the time to visit these places. One should never forget their roots.

    July 17, 2009 at 7:18 pm |
  4. Eugenia - San Francisco, Ca

    great article!

    July 17, 2009 at 6:51 pm |
  5. pansy

    This is another example of how America not connect the DOTS very well. Also showing empathy can mean you have the glass half full because you will never have that experience of others culture, problems, or feelings because every one is different"

    July 17, 2009 at 5:26 pm |
  6. kadycee

    Despite what others here may think (who could have chosen not to read it) I find this story incredibly moving - and important to tell.

    July 17, 2009 at 5:20 pm |
  7. kadycee

    Ruling class? How about elected officials? People in our government don't constitute an entire class of people, nor do they "rule." What's up with that, Mr. Cooper?

    July 17, 2009 at 5:14 pm |
  8. Ellie

    clr – My husband is military. I'm interested in hearing a response from you, to this question: If you are upset about our nation losing 'three soldiers a day" – what are you doing about it?
    and perhaps you could answer a few more, if you have time. I'd like to know what you think...
    And isn't Civil War history relevant to the wars of today? Particularly for those who believe our troops are fighting for 'Freedom' as opposed to oil? Particularly in areas (where we are NOT sending troops) like Darfur, isn't the Civil War of the USA very relevant?

    July 17, 2009 at 5:07 pm |
  9. Kelly eddy

    Anyone who doesn't believe there is a class system and therfore a "ruling class" is out of touch and in total denial. The difference between ours and much of the world's is that ours is mobile and fluid. People with brains and work ethic from poor backgrounds can "work up", just as easily as those without brains and work ethic from rich backgrounds can "slip down". Just so happens a lot is passed down in our genes.

    July 17, 2009 at 4:41 pm |
  10. phyl

    Wow! I am always amazed at how ignorant we Americans are! I would suggest that anyone reading this blog pickup the book "Slavery By Another Name"! Then, maybe you will understand why the term "get over it" sounds soooooooo dumb! Why is America so afraid to face its brutal past. We have no problem reminding the Germany about their atrocities!

    For any descendants of immigrants to this country, please Google "immigrant" and then "slavery"! Once you have read it – then maybe we will stop using that tired conversation also!

    July 17, 2009 at 4:34 pm |
  11. Lampe

    Can we please move past this topic? You had stories on it last week, and this week. There are alot more important things going on in our Country right now. The Economy, Unemployment, How much this Healthcare Program of Obamas is going to cost. How about doing your jobs (a four-letter word) and report on that.

    July 17, 2009 at 4:31 pm |
  12. Mike in NYC


    It's not "tens of millions of tax dollars" that Whites have given to blacks, it's over a trillion. Yes, a trillion.

    That's how much money has flowed from White taxpayers to blacks in the form of entitlements over the last five decades that have been paid for overwhelmingly by Whites. If that's not reparations, then nothing is. And they're still paying.

    I was surprised that McDonough slipped up on this, since his other points were spot on.

    July 17, 2009 at 3:52 pm |
  13. Vincent Spoons

    Im mean think about it ,as a country and the media we have been giving the blacks alot of attention Dont you think.??
    Black history Month.No other culture has amonth????
    Living black in America 1
    Living Black in America 2
    I came go on and on . What about the rest of us. How about living Italian.Greman.Indian.polish.in America.
    Tracing Michelle slavery roots. Because she is proud of her heritage
    her deep conection to America,
    Your hole show is BLACK related.Can you see that????

    July 17, 2009 at 2:10 pm |
  14. Emily Peters

    This was a moving piece. I loved the end quote connecting the two "white houses." Michelle is an amazing role model for American girls and women. I want to see her portrayed as a political figure instead of a fashionista. The Obama's are doing a great job of hanging onto their roots and encouraging our country to move on but never forget.

    July 17, 2009 at 1:39 pm |
  15. Erin

    now that they are at the top of the ruling class, how about they actually DO something to help people?

    July 17, 2009 at 1:38 pm |
  16. Katherine

    First of all, I am outraged about the coverage on President Obama, Mrs. Obama, mother-in-law Obama, and Obama kids visiting the slave outpost in Ghana. Our tax dollars financing the presidential family and presidential extended family vacation to tour the slave outpost is absolutely disgusting! Enough already! This issue has been milked for beyond its worth many times over. Yes, slavery was a terrible thing. Do we need to be constantly reminded and berated about it? No! I thoroughly agree with Representative Patrick McDonough in that an apology is not necessary. My family, as well as many other American families, descended from Ireland and Scotland after the slave trade had ended. None of my ancestors ever owned slaves. Representative McDonough also made a great point that the 500,000 dead soldiers from the civil war and tens of millions of tax dollars assisting the African Americans should be payment in full. An apology is a prerequisite for further reparations and is indeed not necessary. President Obama was elected by the American people of all colors and backgrounds to serve our country – not to abrade the slavery history. No other American president has been on a soapbox for "white issues." Our nation will never come together as long as we have a president distinctly stirring the pity pot for black America. This is in extremely poor taste. And as for Mrs. Obama, my ancestors were poor sharecroppers who worked probably as hard if not harder than slaves did for what they had. Therefore, don't cry me a river for what your ancestors went through. It's time to get over it!

    July 17, 2009 at 1:30 pm |
  17. clr

    Who the heck cares. Get over it. My family were native american indians. You don't see me out there whining while our nation is losing THREE SOLDIERS A DAY ON AVERAGE!

    Get over yourself.

    July 17, 2009 at 12:52 pm |
  18. Susan Lewis

    This nation does not have a "Ruling Class", Mr. Obama was elected by the majority of the voting population. I think Mrs. Obama has more class than to dredge up things like this. We should follow her classy example.

    July 17, 2009 at 12:30 pm |