Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s Steadfast Mother, Dies at 86


Providing Stability in the National Spotlight

Marian Robinson’s move to Washington in January 2009 was initially said to be temporary to help her daughter and granddaughters adjust. She ended up staying for most of the eight years President Barack Obama was in office.

Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother and an anchor of the Obama family, moved into the White House and provided stability for her two granddaughters as the family adjusted to Washington. She died on Friday in Chicago at the age of 86.

Her death was announced in a statement by Mrs. Obama, former President Barack Obama, and other family members. The statement did not provide a cause.

Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Ms. Robinson was known as a down-to-earth matriarch who became an emotional ballast for her daughter and granddaughters, Malia and Sasha, as well as for Mr. Obama.

When Mr. Obama became the first Black person to win the presidency in November 2008, he watched the returns alongside his mother-in-law. Their hands were clasped as they watched their future change.

But Mrs. Robinson remained much the same. “Just show me how to work the washing machine and I’m good,” she said after moving into the White House, the Obamas recalled in their statement.

Comfort in Simplicity

Mrs. Robinson was never comfortable with the trappings of the White House and much preferred to take her dinner on a TV tray in her third-floor suite. “The only guest she made a point of asking to meet was the pope,” the family said.

In addition to Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Robinson’s survivors include her son, Craig, and six grandchildren. Her husband, Fraser Robinson III, died in 1991.

Temporary Move Turned Permanent

Mrs. Robinson’s move to Washington in January 2009 was initially said to be temporary to help her daughter and granddaughters adjust. At the time, she was hesitant to commit to a life inside a White House bubble, but even as she resisted, she revealed the resolve and sense of humor she had tried to instill in her children.

“In the end, I’ll do whatever,” she told reporters at the time. “I might fuss a little, but I’ll be there.”

Supporting the Family

Mrs. Robinson resided in her White House suite for most of President Obama’s eight years in office. She continued the duties she had started during his first presidential campaign, including enforcing bedtimes for her granddaughters, running their baths, and ensuring they got to school on time. She eventually adjusted, attending events at the Kennedy Center, hosting friends from Chicago, and occasionally hiring a babysitter to watch the girls.

“The girls needed her,” the family statement said. “And she ended up being our rock through it all.”

A Model of Support

To her daughter, she had been a model of support. In her memoir, Becoming, Mrs. Obama wrote that she had wanted to be both a career woman and a “perfect” mother, as her own had been.

“I had so much — an education, a healthy sense of self, a deep arsenal of ambition,” she wrote. “And I was wise enough to credit my mother, in particular, with instilling it in me.”

Early Life and Marriage

Marian Lois Shields Robinson was born on July 29, 1937, in Chicago. Her father, Purnell Shields, had moved to Chicago from Alabama in the 1920s to escape the Jim Crow South. Her mother, Rebecca Jumper, was a nursing aide. As a young woman, Marian “fell quickly and madly in love with Fraser Robinson, another South Sider with a boxer’s strength and a jazz lover’s cool,” the family said.

The Robinsons were married in 1960. Craig Robinson was born in 1962, Michelle in 1964.

Raising the Family

The Robinsons raised their children in a second-floor apartment on Euclid Avenue on the South Side, where they interacted with a rotating cast of extended family members, including a great-aunt who taught piano and lived in the first-floor apartment.

Mrs. Obama said that her mother and other family members, including her older brother, largely shielded her from the civil rights protests that roiled Chicago and much of the nation in the late 1960s. Instead, she said, she grew up listening to the clinking of piano keys rising from the floor below.

When Mrs. Obama was in elementary school, Mrs. Robinson asked that her daughter be moved into a gifted third-grade class, an act of advocacy that Mrs. Obama said helped change her life.

Supporting Her Children’s Dreams

As the Robinson children grew into adults, they said, she offered her support, whether Craig “decided to leave a lucrative finance job to pursue his dream of coaching basketball” or “Michelle married a guy crazy enough to go into politics.”

Joining the White House

Mrs. Robinson was alongside her daughter and granddaughters when they ran upstairs to see the White House residence for the first time after Mr. Obama won the election in November 2008.

Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to the first lady Laura Bush, said that the Bush daughters, Barbara and Jenna, invited the Obama family to a tour of what would be their new home.

Ms. McBride recalled in an interview that Mrs. Robinson was quiet as the White House chief usher greeted the family. But if she was nervous, she did not let it show.

“She followed her daughter and her granddaughters on this adventure,” Ms. McBride said. “It’s a reminder that as lofty as it may seem, and as unattainable as it may seem, anybody can live there, and they can make a family life, and a family home.”

Michael Levenson contributed reporting.

Michelle and Barack Obama Lead Tributes to Her Late Mom: ‘There Will Only Be One Marian Robinson’

Michelle and Barack Obama led a chorus of politicians and celebrities in paying tribute to her late mother, Marian Robinson.

Ms. Robinson, known as the “first grandma” or “grandma in residence” during former President Obama’s time in office, died on Friday at the age of 86, according to a statement from her family.

“My mom Marian Robinson was my rock, always there for whatever I needed,” wrote Michelle Obama on Friday evening. “She was the same steady backstop for our entire family, and we are heartbroken to share she passed away today.”

Barack Obama also said: “There was and will be only one Marian Robinson. 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.”

A Legacy of Strength and Humor

A statement jointly posted on Medium by the Obamas and the Robinsons described how she had supported them through the turbulent years of his rise to power and had taken some “nudging” to leave Chicago and move in with them when he became president.

“The trappings and glamour of the White House were never a great fit for Marian Robinson,” the couple wrote. “‘Just show me how to work the washing machine and I’m good,’ she’d say.”

Tributes from Friends and Admirers

Tennis champion and LGBT+ pioneer Billie Jean King expressed her “deepest condolences,” recalling a happy time she had spent with Ms. Robinson during the US Open tennis competition in 2013.

Comedian and TV host Loni Love also paid tribute, calling her “always classy, kind, and beautiful,” while Oscars diversity activist April Reign posted: “RIP.”

Viola Davis, the actress and film producer known for her starring roles in The Help and the ABC TV show How to Get Away With Murder, wrote on Instagram: “What a quiet, powerful force you were. Your legacy is in what you planted: your belief that the children you bring into the world are already who they’re meant to be. Rest well, Mrs. Robinson. ‘May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’”

Other tributes came from New York congressman Adriano Espaillat, political strategist Shermichael Singleton, and Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson.

Maintaining a Simple Life

The Obamas’ statement went on to explain her sense of humor during her eight years with them in the White House.

“Rather than hobnobbing with Oscar winners or Nobel laureates, she preferred spending her time upstairs with a TV tray, in the room outside her bedroom with big windows that looked out at the Washington Monument. The only guest she made a point of asking to meet was the Pope.

“Over those eight years, she made great friends with the ushers and butlers, the folks who make the White House a home. She’d often sneak outside the gates to buy greeting cards at CVS, and sometimes another customer might recognize her. ‘You look like Michelle’s mother,’ they’d say. She’d smile and reply, ‘Oh, I get that a lot.’”

A Life Shaped by Challenges

Marian Lois Shields Robinson was born in 1937, one of seven children raised in what the Obamas described as “a tiny upstairs apartment on the red-lined South Side of Chicago.”

While she was growing up, she watched her parents struggle with racial segregation. Her father, Purnell Shields, was unable to join a union or work for certain construction firms because of the color of his skin.

As an adult, Ms. Robinson studied to be a teacher and later worked as a secretary, married Fraser Robinson, and had two children, Craig and Michelle.

The Obamas described Ms. Robinson as a steadfast source of support and encouragement, including when Michelle “married a guy crazy enough to go into politics.”

“At every step, as our families went down paths none of us could have predicted, she remained our refuge from the storm, keeping our feet on solid ground,” the family wrote. “On election night in 2008, when the news broke that Barack would soon shoulder the weight of the world, she was there, holding his hand.”

Retaining Independence

At the White House, Ms. Robinson was always careful to retain her own separate space, reportedly staying away from the administration’s nerve center in the West Wing and living in an apartment on a different floor from the Obamas.

Nevertheless, she frequently accompanied the couple to official events such as Christmas carol singing, as well as diplomatic visits to the UK, South Africa, and China – where she shook hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping and visited the Forbidden City.

After the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency in 2017, Ms. Robinson moved back to Chicago and spent time traveling and “reconnecting with longtime friends.”

The statement said that she died peacefully.

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