Tucked in a corner of metro Atlanta’s Clayton County is the village of Rex, now the site of historic monument dedicated to an ancestor of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Residents there hope the White House connection to a former slave could mean a boost of tourism for the poor community.
The sound of soft jazz drifts across the crowd gathering for a monument unveiling in a village known as ‘the whisper’ of Clayton County. Historic Rex looks almost untouched by the passage of time. An old grain mill sits along the banks of Big Cotton Indian Creek. You have to cross a weathered steel bridge to get to the center of town. That’s where Ken Lumpkin has a dental practice and a view of the action:
“It is beautiful and there’s a creek that runs under the bridge and it runs in back of all of this property and the railroad track has a lot of nostalgia, associated with it.”
Nostalgia is where this story starts-- inspiring a New York times reporter named Rachel L. Swarns to trace First Lady, Michelle Obama’s family back 5 generations. After years of research and a series of DNA tests, it was revealed that the first Lady’s great, great, great grandmother, Melvinia Shields, was a slave on a 200 acre farm in Rex. Swarns discovered that at the age of 15, Shields gave birth to a son fathered by her white owner:
“These families are connected through a painful chapter in our history and there were some, both black and white who really didn’t want to look back, who wanted to move forward without dealing with that history.”
That history is chronicled in Swarns book, “American Tapestry, the story of the black, white and multiracial ancestors of Michelle Obama.”
“My cousin, the Appkins, they found out they are related to Michelle Obama…”
That’s Jane Wilburn from Rome, Georgia who’s traveled to Rex to see the dedication of a monument to Melvinia Shields. She’s proud of the unexpected tie to the country’s most prominent black woman:
“Everything, her dressing, her personality, I just like her as a person, period. And it would be a joy just to meet her, you know?”
Ladies in giant hats are fanning themselves under the scorching afternoon sun. Kids crane their necks to get a glimpse of the monument draped in black.
The marble monument is revealed at last-- ¬¬¬flanked by both white and black descendents of Melvinia Shields—many meeting for the first time. Jarrod Shields is related to the man who owned the young slave:
“It is great, because I always wanted to reach out to the slaves, I always wanted to see what happened to their descendents and then when I found out I had relatives, it was just like, mega.”
A reaction that tourism officials think the general public will share. Bruce Green with the Georgia Department of Economic Development says he hopes Swarns book can do for Rex what Gone with the Wind did for Atlanta. Tourists would bring much needed business to the small community:
“We think this could be one of the stepping stones, so to speak, that will help galvanize the community and to bring about investment and economic re-development of the historic village of Rex.”
Bringing some more business across that old bridge to downtown Rex is what Ken Lumpkin is counting on:
“That would be one of the greatest things to happen to happen to this area. As long as I can make a little bit of money, then I’m satisfied.”
And now there are hopes for some modern day success--- for a poor village cloaked in a ‘tapestry’ of rich history.