NEW YORK (Reuters) - Prominent black activist Al Sharpton has learned he is descended from a slave who was owned by ancestors of the one-time segregationist U.S. senator, the late Strom Thurmond, the Daily News reported on Sunday.
The series of revelations came to light after the newspaper offered Sharpton a chance to delve into his family history with the help of genealogy experts from Ancestry.com.
Sharpton learned of the connection this week, and told the News that “nothing — nothing — could prepare me for this.”
According to the genealogists’ research, Sharpton’s great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave in South Carolina, who along with a woman and two children — believed to be his wife and children — were given as a gift to Julia Thurmond and forced to move to Florida.
Julia Thurmond’s grandfather was the great-great-grandfather of Strom Thurmond, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1948 on a program of keeping the races in the Deep South segregated.
The researchers were led by Megan Smolenyak, an ancestry scholar who has written four books and was the lead researcher for the PBS “Ancestors” series, the newspaper said.
Among unearthed documents was an 1861 slave contract that confirmed that Coleman Sharpton was sent from Edgefield County, South Carolina, to Liberty County, Florida, where he would work until given his freedom at the end of the Civil War.
Incontrovertible data showed the woman who owned Sharpton’s great-grandfather was related to Thurmond, the News said.
“You know for real that you are three generations away from slavery,” Sharpton said after being told of his history. Informed by the paper of the Thurmond connection, he wondered aloud: “Strom Thurmond’s family owned my family.”
“It’s chilling,” he said. “It’s amazing,” before adding “Maybe I’m the revenge of Coleman.” On a more serious note he reflected his past “gives you a sense of obligation.”
Sharpton became known in New York in 1985 when he demanded a stiff sentence for a white man, Bernhard Goetz, who shot some black youths on a New York subway. Sharpton’s activism continued over the next two decades and he made a brief run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.
Relatives of Thurmond, who after his death was revealed to have fathered a black child, reacted with skepticism or resignation to the findings. Thurmond’s son Paul had “no comment,” while Thurmond’s nephew Barry Bishop said it was “a bunch of baloney.”
Shown the evidence, he said he knew nothing about it and could not comment.
But a niece, Ellen Senter, told the News that going back far enough in history would turn up “lots of people connected to each other from different walks of life.”
“It is wonderful that (Sharpton) was able to become what he is in spite of what his forefather was,” she said.
Thurmond was elected to the Senate in 1954 and led the fight over the next decade against civil rights legislation. He eventually changed his views and kept being re-elected until he was more than 100 years old. He left the Senate in 2003 as its longest serving member and died at short time later.