Ancestry.com is out with a press release and a study this morning claiming that President Obama is descended from what they call the first ‘slave’ in America. “President Barack Obama,” says the press release, “is the 11th great-grandson of John Punch, the first documented African enslaved for life in American history.” And the kicker is, at least as far as this study goes, that it’s through his white mother.
There are a lot of contingent claims in the study, done by Ancestry.com genealogist Joseph Shumway. The first is that an African man named John Punch became the first slave in 1640 — more on that in a moment.
Obama’s mother Stanley Ann Dunham was descended from slave-owning Virginians and Shumway’s argument is that Punch had children with a white woman who inherited her free status and eventually ‘passed’ into the white population. He is thus the ancestor of the Dunhams. That’s certainly not inherently implausible. There’s a lot of African blood among Southern whites. Much more common was white men and black women, though in these very early decades race hierarchies weren’t quite so nailed down.
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