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Register at Bassett center key to Obama research
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Beverly Millner created this diagram of first lady Michelle Obama’s family tree. Millner used research done by historian and genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who says a quarter of Michelle Obama’s ancestors can be traced to Henry and Pittsylvania counties. Millner included photos of living and deceased relatives on the chart, which he discusses above. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

By ELIZA WINSTON - Bulletin Staff Writer

Without a rare document preserved at the Bassett Historical Center, parts of first lady Michelle Obama's ancestry might have been left undiscovered, researchers said.

"Michelle Obama's family history was one of the hardest I have ever worked on," said Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist and family history expert who traveled to Bassett to research the first lady's roots.

That was mostly because many of Obama's ancestors were slaves before the Civil War, Smolenyak said. Locally, they included families with surnames Tinsley, Wade and Morehead, her research showed.

"Unfortunately, when you are dealing with enslaved individuals, you have to find out who the slave owner was, and then go through their property records hoping for some mention of the slave," Smolenyak said.

The research was made easier here because the Bassett Historical Center had a copy of the Henry County Cohabitation Register, titled the "Register of Colored Persons cohabiting together as Husband and Wife on 27th February, 1866."

Local genealogist Beverly Millner, who used Smolenyak's research to identify some of the first lady's more recent living and deceased relatives, explained that cohabitation registers were created in Virginia shortly after emancipation. A register was a list of all the African-American couples who previously had been denied the right of marriage.

The register allowed them to record their names and those of their children in the local courthouse in order for their marriages to finally be legitimized, he said.

Although the registers have disappeared from many counties in Virginia, Henry County's cohabitation register survives. Smolenyak said that the register is one of only seven remaining in the state.

The copy available at the center was also helpful because it had been transcribed and made more readable than the original, Smolenyak said. Millner said that was done by the late John B. Harris.

"Picking up the trail of someone who was enslaved tends to be very hard. It is beyond fortunate that the register exists, and it is amazing that the Bassett Historical Center has it and that Mr. Harris transcribed it," Smolenyak said.

She added that it is also impressive that many of Obama's ancestors, including free blacks - members of a family called Jumper were freed before the Civil War, records show - took advantage of having their marriages recognized through the cohabitation register. The register not only provided the names of the former slaves and their spouses, but also their children and former slave owners, Smolenyak said.

"It was like someone left a road map to her roots," she said.

Without knowledge of the register, "no one had done her roots because it was hard," said Smolenyak. However, because of the register and research materials available at the historical center, she said that "Henry County is where the largest chunk of Michelle's ancestors are just laying on the surface."�

In addition to the cohabitation register, Smolenyak used two books written by Harris and Millner, "African American Census 1870-1910 of Henry County Virginia," volumes one and two, and "African American Marriages of Henry County Virginia."

Millner, who said the center also made his research possible, noted that it still needs funds for its expansion. Anyone who would like to make a donation or find out more information on genealogical research materials can call the center at 629-9191.


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