Marian Shields Robinson, mother of former first lady Michelle Obama, dies at 86

Marian Shields Robinson once said she had the “easiest job” at the White House as the “first grandmother.”

Malia Obama, Sasha Obama, mother-in-law Marian Robinson, first lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama attend the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony on the Ellipse south of the White House December 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Olivier Douliery- Pool/Getty Images)

Marian Shields Robinson, mother of former first lady Michelle Obama, was a major pillar during former President Barack Obama’s 2008 bid for the White House. 

Taking on the task of caring for granddaughters Malia and Sasha, Robinson made their meals, ran their baths and tucked them into bed. She drove them to school, and to piano and dance lessons with Secret Service in tow. Once she became the nation’s first grandmother, she helped the girls settle into their home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The transition would prove to be just as challenging for the Chicago native. 

Barack Obama Sworn In As U.S. President For A Second Term
(Left to right) First daughters Sasha and Malia Obama and their grandmother Marian Robinson look on following President Barack Obama’s public ceremonial inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 21, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

“I’ve never lived outside of Chicago, so I don’t know,’’ Robinson said in an interview with the New York Times, expressing her hesitations on permanently moving into the White House which reminded her of a museum. “In the end, I’ll do whatever. I might fuss a little, but I’ll be there.”

In her 2018 memoir, “Becoming,” Michelle Obama shared that her mother was forthright, honest and not afraid to speak her mind. “My mother, Marian, showed me how to think for myself and to use my voice,” she writes. 

Robinson, often called “Mrs. R.,” died Friday, according to a family statement shared with NBC News. “She passed peacefully this morning, and right now, none of us are quite sure how exactly we’ll move on without her,” read the statement. The cause of death was not mentioned.

Barack Obama, whom Robinson adored, shared via Facebook in 2019 to celebrate his mother-in-law’s birthday: “I’ve always appreciated her steadiness, her perspective, and the way a wisecrack from her reverberates around the room.”

A Chicago native

Born on July 29, 1937, Marian Lois Shields was the fourth of seven children of Purnell Nathaniel Shields and Rebecca Jumper. Purnell was a carpenter and painted houses, while Rebecca worked as a licensed practical nurse. Through DNA research, the New York Times revealed the Shields’ complex family lineage to slavery. The story showed Marian’s great-grandfather Dolphus T. Shields was the son of an enslaved teen girl and her white owner. 

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This discovery “underscores the entangled histories and racial intermingling that continue to bind countless American families more than 140 years after the Civil War,” the Times reported in 2012. Some of the Shields family did eventually migrate north. That included Purnell’s mother, Annie, who moved her two sons from Birmingham, Alabama, to Chicago between 1920 and 1923.    

In October 1960, Marian Shields married Fraser Robinson III, who worked for the Chicago Water Department. The couple would dedicate themselves to building a family life in their second-floor apartment of a brick bungalow located in Chicago’s South Side. 

Robinson once worked as a secretary for mail-order retailer Spiegel and at the University of Chicago, but she was mostly a stay-at-home mom for Michelle and son Craig Robinson, former head men’s basketball coach at Oregon State University and Brown University. She returned to work as an executive assistant for a local bank when her daughter began high school.

“She was one of those parents that showed up all the time at schools,” Stephen Shields, the youngest of the Shields siblings, said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “She kept the teachers on their toes.” 

Barack Obama Holds Election Night Gathering In Chicago's Grant Park
(Left to right) U.S. President-elect Barack Obama stands on stage with his mother-in-law Marian Robinson, Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s mother Jean, and Joe Biden during an election night gathering in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008, in Chicago. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Michelle Obama has echoed that sentiment. “We were their investment,” she wrote in “Becoming.” “Together, in our cramped apartment on the South Side of Chicago, they helped me see the value in our story, in my story, in the larger story of our country. Even when it’s not pretty or perfect.”    

Robinson doted on both of her children as they grew and became successful adults. “When I look at Michelle and Craig — a big-time college basketball coach — I feel like maybe, just maybe, Fraser and I got something right,” Robinson wrote in a 2012 personal essay for Essence. “We didn’t do anything special. But I see the adults our kids have become and I can’t help but smile a little bit.” 

Fraser, who had multiple sclerosis, passed away in 1991.

Life in the White House

Robinson lived a quiet life in that very apartment until 2009, when Barack Obama officially took office. The Obamas didn’t want their girls to be taken to school by Secret Service agents, and Robinson wrote in her essay for Essence that she agreed to support her daughter and son-in-law out of concern for the family’s safety.   

“[Robinson is] a presence in a very quiet, understated way,” a longtime family friend told Politico in 2011. “The first lady wouldn’t be as comfortable as she is traveling around the country and the world if her mom wasn’t there to pitch in.”

Robinson’s plan upon moving to the third floor of the residence was to help everyone get settled and then return to her quiet Chicago life. But after three years, she seemed to have built her own new quiet life full of family. 

“One of my biggest blessings is getting to see my granddaughters grow up before my eyes. My job here is the easiest one of all: I just get to be Grandma,” she wrote in her essay for Essence. 

Robinson made sure her granddaughters did their chores, including cleaning their rooms, and she taught the girls how to do their own laundry

“[My mother] laid out the blueprint for how I have raised my own girls,” Michelle Obama wrote in a 2020 Mother’s Day tribute on Instagram.    

First Lady Michelle Obama Travels to China - Day 2
(Left to right) Marian Robinson and U.S. first lady Michelle Obama share a light moment with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan after a photograph session at the Diaoyutai State guest house on March 21, 2014 in Beijing, China. Michelle Obama’s one-week-long visit in China focused on educational and cultural exchanges. (Photo by Andy Wong-Pool/Getty Images)

Carving out her own space

Robinson did carve out her own space. She would spend afternoons reading in the great hall, which served as the first family’s living room on the second-floor residence. After spending some family time, Mrs. R. often retreated to her room, which had a four-poster bed and sitting area.

“There are many times when she drops off the kids, we hang out and talk and catch up, and then she’s like, ‘I’m going home.’ And she walks upstairs,” Michelle Obama told Oprah Winfrey in an interview.

Robinson kept a busy social life, and the Obamas mused that they would have to plan their schedule around hers. She made new friends among D.C. locals and often dined out, leaving the White House without the Secret Service detail. Betty Currie, who served as President Bill Clinton’s personal secretary, was among those new friends. 

Robinson participated in many events at the White House and traveled with her daughter and her granddaughters for state visits. That included trips to China and South Africa. She also joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan to read to young children as part of “Let’s Read, Let’s Move,” one of Michelle Obama’s cherished causes as first lady. 

“She [was] having a great time,” a family friend told Politico in 2011

Yet she never put aside her main role, caring for Sasha and Malia. During a 2010 state dinner, the Washington Post reported that Robinson excused herself in order to tuck in her granddaughters, and then returned to the soiree. “She’s been there for us every day,” former President Obama once said. 

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