Eldrin Bell visits cemetery to locate resting place of First Lady's relative
by Shaka S. Lias
Mar 06, 2011 | 5181 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Chairman of Commissioners for Clayton County Eldrin Bell stands in the cemetery behind Queen Chapel Independent Methodist Church. Melvinia Shields, great-great-great-grandmother of First Lady Michelle Obama, and decedents once lived in Rex, a small city in Clayton before relocating to Kingston.
Shaka S. Lias/The Daily Tribune News
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Chairman of Commissioners for Clayton County Eldrin Bell said his reason for visiting a Kingston cemetery where an ancestor of First Lady Michelle Obama is buried is bigger than the Obama family. "It's about family and reconnecting."

Bell, a self-proclaimed history buff, said when it was discovered that a relative of Obama once lived in Rex, a small city in Clayton, he became interested in knowing more.

The roots of Melvinia Shields, also known as Mattie McGruder, were traced back to Kingston and identified as the great-great-great-grandmother of Michelle Obama.

"We are standing in the cemetery where she is buried and personally I'd like to find her," Bell said on Monday afternoon.

Finding Shield's gravesite could prove difficult since the deceaseds' graves were marked with stones back then -- a large stone at the head and a small one at the foot.

Ruth Wheeler Applin, 92, who resided in the same home as Shields, said she is buried somewhere in the cemetery behind Queen Chapel Independent Methodist Church.

"I don't remember, it's down there somewhere," Applin said. "It didn't have any stones, just rocks."

Bell said after he examined headstones dated between 1914 and 1917, "if you find that you have someone from 1914 and 1917 here with headstones, lets make the assumption they had wealth or at least were connected to wealth."

The original church has been torn down and rebuilt.

In a previous Daily Tribune News article, Applin remembered Shields as a woman who loved to mend clothing and make lye soap.

"She was more (like) my mama," Applin said. "I really took care of her until she died; she was a sweet little lady."

Applin said she was only 16 when she married her late husband, Emory. Together they had five children and Shields helped raise the eldest.

"We had an old house and, on the front of the porch, we had a rocking chair, and I would let her hold (Emory Jr.) while I would do the work," Applin recalled.

Nellie Margaret Harris-Applin, who is married to Ruth's son David, is Kingston's local historian and has been working with the genealogists in Clayton County. Harris-Applin said when she heard about the article in The New York Times and the connection to Kingston, she started doing research.

The first lady's lineage was disclosed in the NYT's "In first lady's roots, a complex path from slavery" published in October 2009. The article traced her ancestors back to Kingston.

Harris-Applin said she went to her family with what she found and at first they didn't believe her. "I kept digging and I brought them more proof."

Harris-Applin said McGruder and Shields was the same person. "When they left South Carolina, they were McGruder. They took their slave owner's name (Shields) when they became free," she explained.

She went to say there were only three slaves that traveled from South Carolina to Clayton County, and after Shields was freed she wanted to be reunited with relatives, which is what brought her to Kingston.

According to the NYT article, Shields died in 1938 at the age of 100 and is buried in the cemetery. Bell said he would like to get an archivist to find exactly where she is interred.

"I don't want to disturb or move her -- I just want to mark it," Bell said.

He said marking it will further add to the value of her and the community as it looks at history. "I understand there is a great deal of history here and I plan to come back," he added. "The value is not what we want for Clayton County but the connectivity to Kingston as well."

Bell said his reason for coming wasn't in vain because he found the area. He will now try to obtain some archival grants with the help of his staff.

"I hope we are able to come back and find her; I'd love to be able to find her," Bell said.

He said finding family is like being at the foothills of success. "At the apex of every society is a strong family."

Kingston Mayor Dexter Jones said he's pleased with the outcome and to be able to share past and present historic information.

"We are looking forward to working with the tourism bureau from Georgia and the guys from Clayton County to hopefully further develop the tourism in Kingston and this part of Bartow County."