From Slavery to the White House: the USCT Ancestors of First Lady Michelle Obama
In January of 2013 a family walked into the museum and mentioned that they had an ancestor who served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War and they were looking for his name on the memorial wall at the African American Civil War Memorial. The leader of the group, Audrea Barnes mentioned that Michelle Obama was her second cousin and she sent them to the museum to find information on their ancestor. After a little research we were able to find the ancestor they came to the museum to search for, Jerry Suttor who changed his name after the war to Sutton, but also another ancestor who served, Caesar Cohen.
With the exception of the fact that these soldiers are the ancestors of the First Lady of the United States, this story is very common at the museum. A family walks in searching for their soldier and a sharing of information occurs between the families and the museum. Much of what we know about these soldiers outside of public record comes from their families. Both of Michelle Obama’s ancestors were born slaves, Jerry Suttor would make his way to the Corinth Mississippi Contraband Camp before enlisting in the USCT. Corinth Mississippi was home to nearly 50,000 former slaves from states all across the South some of whom join the USCT and have descendants living today. The exhibit From Slavery to the White House: the USCT Ancestors of First Lady Michelle Obama will mainly touch on two stories of Civil War soldiers but it will be housed in the Michelle Obama Descendant’s Legacy Gallery which will eventually be the home of many stories of different USCT soldiers.
The exhibit From Slavery to the White House: the USCT Ancestors of First Lady Michelle Obama will share the story of Michelle Obama’s two USCT ancestors from their start as slaves to their enlistment as soldiers and a bit of their lives after the war. The exhibit will house documents and photos used to compile the story in the book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, as well as many documents not used in the book. The exhibit will feature video interviews from the author of American Tapestry, Rachel Swarns and relatives of Michelle Obama retelling the story of their Civil War ancestors that they grew up hearing. Additionally the exhibit will feature a kiosk whereby visitors may search the museums database of records compiled since opening its doors in 1999. Since 1999 the museum has worked with over 5000 descendants of USCT soldiers and we have collected documentation and records from families about their ancestor providing a unique research tool right in the middle of an exhibit.
This exhibit moves along way in showing what these newly freed individuals did with their new found freedom, they established churches, built homes and schools and even had descendants living in the White House. From Slavery to the White House: the USCT Ancestors of First Lady Michelle will eventually travel to other institutions and museums that tell a similar story of slavery to freedom.