Geneaologists have found that civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton is a descendent of a slave owned by relatives of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a newspaper reported Sunday.
The Daily News said professional genealogists, working at the newspaper’s behest, recently uncovered the ancestral ties between one of the nation’s best known black leaders and a man who was once a prominent defender of segregation.
“I have always wondered what was the background of my family,” the newspaper quoted Sharpton as saying. “But nothing – nothing – could prepare me for this.”
“It’s chilling. It’s amazing.”
Some of Thurmond’s relatives said the connection also came as a surprise to them. A niece, Ellen Senter, said she would speak with Sharpton if he were interested.
“I doubt you can find many native South Carolinians today whose family, if you traced them back far enough, didn’t own slaves,” said Senter, 61, of Columbia, S.C. She added: “And it is wonderful that (Sharpton) was able to become what he is in spite of what his forefather was.”
According to the Daily News, the genealogists found documents establishing that Sharpton’s great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave owned by Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Strom Thurmond’s great-great-grandfather. Coleman Sharpton was later freed.
The newspaper said the lead researcher was Megan Smolenyak, the chief family historian for Ancestry.com and an author of several published books on genealogy. Another researcher on the project was Tony Burroughs, who teaches genealogy at Chicago State University.
Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, was once considered a symbol of segregation. During his 1948 bid for president, he promised to preserve racial segregation. In 1957, he filibustered for more than 24 hours against a civil rights bill.
But Thurmond was seen as softening his stance later in his long life. He died in 2003, at 100. The longest-serving senator in history, he was originally a Democrat but became a Republican in 1964.
His children have acknowledged that Thurmond fathered a biracial daughter. Essie Mae Washington-Williams’ mother was a housekeeper in the home of Thurmond’s parents.