Robin Shulman, Washington Post, Feb. 26, 2007
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the prominent civil rights activist, is descended from a slave owned by relatives of the late senator and one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond, a genealogical study released Sunday reported.
“It was probably the most shocking thing of my life,” Sharpton said of learning the findings, which were requested and published Sunday by the New York Daily News. He called a news conference to respond publicly to the report. “I couldn’t describe to you the emotions I have had . . . everything from anger to outrage to reflection to some pride and glory.”
The newfound knowledge that his great-grandfather was a slave, Sharpton added, gave him a new perspective on his life.
The revelation was particularly stunning for the juxtaposition of the two men’s public lives.
Sharpton, known for his fiery rhetoric and a tendency to intervene as an advocate in racially charged incidents, ran for president in 2004 on a ticket promoting racial justice. Thurmond made his own bid for the presidency in 1948, promising to preserve racial segregation, and in 1957 he filibustered for more than 24 hours against a civil rights bill.
After his death in 2003, though, it became clear that Thurmond had a complicated history with issues of race. A 78-year-old retired schoolteacher, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, revealed that she was the offspring of his extramarital relationship with his family’s black housekeeper.
The genealogy study was produced by researchers for the Web site Ancestry.com. Daily News reporter Austin Fenner initially asked them to research his own roots. He then approached Sharpton and asked if he would permit an investigation of his family history as well, for use in a story. Sharpton agreed. Neither the Daily News nor Sharpton paid for the research.
The research was led by chief Ancestry.com genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who was also the lead researcher for the 1997 PBS series “Ancestors” and has written several books on the subject. She was assisted by researchers including Tony Burroughs, who has been honored by the National Genealogical Society. They used documents including census, marriage, death and military records over a three-week period to examine Sharpton’s family roots.
They found that Sharpton’s great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave owned by Strom Thurmond’s distant cousin.
Coleman Sharpton was given as a gift to Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was the late senator’s great-great-grandfather, said Mike Ward, a spokesman for Ancestry.com. Coleman Sharpton was later freed.
Sharpton said his family origins in Edgefield County, S.C., brought him nearer to his closest mentors, Brown and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had lived nearby. Sharpton said he mused with Brown’s family about whether their families might have a shared past.
Sharpton said he hoped the news of his roots would help heal the lingering wounds of slavery.
The Rev. Al Sharpton wants a DNA test to determine whether he is related to former segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond through his great-grandfather, a slave owned by an ancestor of the late senator.
His spokesman, Rachel Noerdlinger, confirmed Monday for The Associated Press that Sharpton plans to pursue DNA testing, but had no further details.
Professional genealogists, who work for Ancestry.com, found 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.
“Based on the paper trail, it seems pretty evident that the connection is there,” said Mike Ward, a genealogist with Ancestry.com, who called the link “amazing.”
Ancestry.com’s chief family genealogist, Megan Smolenyak, said Sharpton would need to match his DNA with a present-day descendant to see if they are biologically related.
“I think the odds are slim he would match,” Smolenyak told the News.
Sharpton said he hadn’t attempted to contact the Thurmond family. As far as he knew, he said, the family hadn’t tried to call him, either.
Some of Thurmond’s relatives said the nexus 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,” Senter, of Columbia, S.C., told the Daily News.
Telephone messages left by The Associated Press for Strom Thurmond Jr. and for an attorney who once represented Thurmond’s biracial daughter were not immediately returned Sunday.