Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama's Mother, Dies at 86

Matriarch was a 'reassuring presence' at White House during Barack Obama's tenure
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 1, 2024 6:30 AM CDT
Michelle Obama's Mother Dies at Age 86
Marian Robinson, mother of first lady Michelle Obama, center left, smiles as she boards Air Force One with President Obama at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on March 7, 2015.   (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

On election night 2008, as Barack Obama sat nervously in a Chicago hotel suite and awaited news on whether he would become the country's first Black president, his mother-in-law was by his side. "Are you ready for this, Grandma?" Obama asked Marian Shields Robinson, who years earlier had doubted that he and her daughter, Michelle, would last. Six months, tops, Robinson had predicted. "Never one to overemote, my mom just gave him a sideways look and shrugged, causing them both to smile," Michelle Obama wrote in her memoir, Becoming. "Later, though, she'd describe to me how overcome she'd felt right then, struck just as I'd been by his vulnerability. America had come to see Barack as self-assured and powerful, but my mother also recognized the gravity of the passage, the loneliness of the job ahead."

Michelle Obama continued: "The next time I looked over, I saw that she and Barack were holding hands." The union of Barack and Michelle Obama, the 20-something lawyers who met one summer while working at a Chicago law firm, endured and made history. In her own way, Mrs. Robinson would, too. She died peacefully on Friday at the age of 86, the former first lady and her brother, Craig Robinson, and their families announced in a statement, per the AP. "There was and will be only one Marian Robinson," they said. "In our sadness, we are lifted up by the extraordinary gift of her life. And we will spend the rest of ours trying to live up to her example." Besides being the mother of the nation's first Black first lady, Mrs. Robinson was also unusual for being one of the few in-laws who lived at the White House with the president and his immediate family.

Marian Lois Shields Robinson was born in Chicago on July 30, 1937. She attended two years of teaching college, married in 1960, and, as a stay-at-home mom, stressed the importance of education to her children. Both were educated at Ivy League schools, each with a bachelor's degree from Princeton. Michelle Obama also has a law degree from Harvard. Her husband, Fraser Robinson, was a pump operator for the Chicago Water Department. He had multiple sclerosis and died in 1991. Until January 2009, Mrs. Robinson had lived her entire life in Chicago. She was a widow and in her early 70s when Obama was elected in 2008, and she resisted the idea of starting over in Washington. President Obama said the family suggested she try Washington for three months before deciding.

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Granddaughters Malia and Sasha were just 10 and 7, respectively, when they started to call the White House home in 2009 after their dad became president. In Chicago, Mrs. Robinson had become almost a surrogate parent to them during the presidential campaign. She retired from her job as a bank secretary to help shuttle them around. At the White House, she was a reassuring presence. "I would not be who I am today without the steady hand and unconditional love of my mother, Marian Shields Robinson," Michelle Obama wrote in her memoir. "She has always been my rock, allowing me the freedom to be who I am, while never allowing my feet to get too far off the ground." Besides the Obama family, Mrs. Robinson is survived by her son, Craig; his wife, Kelly; and their children Avery, Austin, Aaron, and Leslie. More from the family's statement here, or more here from the AP.

(More Marian Robinson stories.)

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