Marian Robinson, mother to former first lady Michelle Obama, died on May 31 at 86. (Courtesy of Michelle Obama via Instagram)
Marian Robinson, mother to former first lady Michelle Obama, died on May 31 at 86. (Courtesy of Michelle Obama via Instagram)

Marian Robinson, mother to former first lady Michelle Obama, died on Friday, May 31, at 86. Her loved ones said she leaves behind a void in the hearts of many. As a steadfast figure in the Obama White House, Robinson’s presence extended far beyond familial ties, touching the lives of all who knew her.

“My mom, Marian Robinson, was my rock, always there for whatever I needed. She was the same steady backstop for our entire family, and we are heartbroken to share she passed away,” said the former first lady in a statement released Friday by former President Barack Obama and other family members. 

Born Marian Lois Shields, the former first grandmother set out on a journey that was characterized by fortitude and compassion after emerging from the vibrant tapestry of Chicago’s South Side. From her early days as a teacher to her later role as a trusted secretary, Robinson’s life was a testament to the values of family and service, showcasing her personal achievements and contributions.

In a heartfelt tribute, Michelle Obama fondly recalled her mother’s enduring influence, describing her as the unwavering pillar of their family. Robinson’s wisdom, honed through life’s diverse experiences, was a beacon of light during times of uncertainty. Her steadfast support and gentle nature were not just sources of strength but unique qualities that endeared her to the entire Obama clan.

Throughout Barack Obama’s historic presidency, Robinson was a symbol of stability, offering sage advice and unconditional love. Despite the grandeur of the White House, she maintained her down-to-earth charm, forging deep connections with staff and finding solace in everyday routines, thereby extending her influence beyond her immediate family.

“Her wisdom came off as almost innate, as something she was born with, but in reality, it was hard-earned, fashioned by her deep understanding that the world’s roughest edges could always be sanded down with a little grace,” the family wrote.

In the statement penned by Michelle, Barack, Craig, Kelly, Avery, Leslie, Malia, Sasha, Austin and Aaron, they remembered Robinson’s lessons handed down over the years.  

“Our mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother had a way of summing up the truths about life in a word or two, maybe a quick phrase that made everyone around her stop and think,” they wrote. “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Know what’s truly precious. As a parent, you’re not raising babies — you’re raising little people. Don’t worry about whether anybody else likes you. Come home. We’ll always like you here.”

The family recalled that, as a young woman, Robinson studied to become a teacher before working as a secretary. She fell quickly and madly in love with Fraser Robinson, another South Sider with a “boxer’s strength and jazz-lover’s cool.” Together, they raised two children, Craig Robinson and the former first lady, in a tiny upstairs apartment on Euclid Avenue in South Shore. 

A strong caregiver, mother, grandmother and provider, Robinson took her wisdom all the way to the White House.

“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,” the family wrote.  “With a healthy nudge, she agreed to move to the White House with Michelle and Barack. We needed her. The girls needed her. And she ended up being our rock through it all.”

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden emphasized Robinson’s contributions to her family.

“We knew Mrs. Marian Robinson as a devoted mother and grandmother with a fierce and unconditional love of her family. With the blessing of friendship, we felt that love ourselves — with every quiet smile or warm embrace she shared with us,” the Bidens wrote in a White House statement. “She believed, like we do, that family is the beginning, middle and end.  She moved into the White House to be there for her family when they needed her the most, and in so doing, she served her country right alongside them. Her life is a reminder that we are a great nation because we are a good people”

Robinson’s family remembered her as a woman who was not preoccupied with the glitz and glam that came with being the first grandmother, but rather found joy from simple pleasures.

“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 ߲ݴý Monument… 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.’”

Religious Leaders Remember Robinson

Robinson’s faith in God was central to her life.

“The only guest she made a point of asking to meet was the Pope,” Robinson’s family wrote in their statement.

The Rev. Al Sharpton said on MSNBC that Mrs. Robinson was “absolutely the anchor of that family” and added that she had a very discerning spirit. Sharpton was a frequent visitor during the Obama White House and afterward. 

On the Sunday before former President Obama’s inauguration, the then-soon-to-be first family attended worship services at 19th Street Baptist Church in Northwest D.C., where Pastor Derrick Harkins greeted them at the church door. 

That day, people stood in line to attend that historical service and they stood on their feet when the family, including Robinson, walked into the church.

“She was a quiet and consistent presence for the first family,” Harkins told The ߲ݴý Informer. “She was offering grandmotherly advice. It was a cute interlude on how she always seemed to be a steady presence for the whole family.”

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The ߲ݴý Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the ߲ݴý Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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2 Comments

  1. Sincere ❤️ felt condolences. She will always be with you. Lots of love ❤️

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