It looks like an average small town fighting for survival in a tough economy, cut in half by state route 42 which rushes drivers in and out of Rex, Georgia in a matter of moments.
But a few turns off the main drag deposits one into the remains of Rex Village; a lasting link to our first lady’s past. Genealogists tracing Michelle Obama’s history were led here.
In 1852, Michelle Obama’s great-great-great-grandmother was a six-year-old girl named Melvinia. Melvinia lived not far from here on a 200-acre farm; one of three slaves. Sometime as a young teenager, historians say maybe 15-years-old, she was impregnated by a white man and gave birth to the first of four children.
This village was the center of Rex when Melvinia was here. Thriving then; it has crumbled into a state of disrepair with a handful of tenants fighting to keep it alive.
Seamstress Naomi Gilson had not heard the news of Michelle Obama’s family history
“It’s such a wonderful story to hear that she has roots here. But it is teary, makes you kind of hurt a little bit,” Gilson said.
Hurt because the value of a young girl’s life was just $475. Hurt because when Melvinia died in 1938, in her 90s, the space on her death certificate for her parents names said ‘don’t know.’
But Melvinia’s son Dolphus Shields made a life for himself in Birmingham, owning his own home and business. His great-granddaughter Marion now lives in the White House with her daughter, the first lady.
Rex is a place many have forgotten, now linked to a time many wish to forget. But for Naomi Gilson, the past provides a source of power for the future.
“Believe me I’m not bitter,” Gilson said. “Now it just gives you something to push like she’s doing. She’s pushin’, pushin’ forward doing what you need to do to make it better for the next generation.”