Michelle Obama's Ancestors: Rebecca Jumper (aka Coleman)

This is the sixth in a series about the ancestry of the first lady. The previous segments can be found here:

Michelle's maternal grandmother, Rebecca Jumper, did an admirable job of keeping her past a secret, but that's probably because she didn't know much about it herself. That's unfortunate, because hers is an intriguing history, some of which can be traced back the 1700s. Like LaVaughn, Rebecca was the baby of her family, the youngest of Jim and Eliza Jumper's children. She was born in Virginia, and whether she knew it or not, had a solid wall of Southern Virginia ancestry.

Many don't realize that approximately ten percent of African-Americans were free before Emancipation, and Rebecca's Jumper ancestors were among them (read more about this in "The Road to the First Lady's Roots" chapter of Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing). Because of that, it's possible to march back through the generations to her great-grandparents, Peter and Dolly, and their children, Peter, Syrena, Nicy, Richard, Puss, Molly, John and Kitty.


The name Jumper itself is interesting because the family is believed to descend from a woman named Hagar Jumper who managed to obtain her freedom around 1800 on the basis of her Indian heritage. In fact, the earliest known mention of the name pertains to a Tuscarora Indian named Tom, and dates to 1707, though the connection between Hagar and Tom is uncertain.

All of this would have been news to Rebecca, though, as her family moved to North Carolina by the time she reached her first birthday. But that was minor compared to what happened next. Before long, she was sent to live in Chicago to be raised by a childless aunt and uncle. While this might strike us as odd today, child-shipping was a pronounced feature of the Great Migration. As members of an extended family spread out to different locations, all were expected to pitch in and help each other, and child care was frequently a component. If young parents ventured to a northern city, they often left their children behind with Grandma until they got settled, and the reverse was also true. If a portion of the family that stayed in the South was struggling -- if someone died, lost a job, was widowed or otherwise struck with bad luck -- a shuffling of children would often ensue. Of course, in some cases, it was simply a matter that the family concluded that life in the North offered better prospects (such as a good education) for a child.

Rebecca was parceled off to her maternal aunt Carrie and her husband John Coleman while she was still very young. As a result, although she had been born into a family of at least eight children, she was raised as an only child, and it's clear that she regarded the Colemans as her parents. She not only assumed their surname, but also dutifully wrote their names when requested to list her parents in official paperwork.

Rebecca's uncle/father proved injury-prone with medical woes ranging from a bullet in the wrist to a fall that occurred while working for the WPA and left him using a cane. Perhaps it was tending to him that led Rebecca to become a practical nurse, but not before she married Purnell Shields. Among the children she and Purnell had was a daughter named Marian who would one day become known as the "First Grandma."

(to be continued)