Sharpton learns he shares roots with segregationist senator Thurmond

With a report from Associated Press

One was a hardcore white segregationist from the Deep South, the other is an incendiary black civil-rights activist from Brooklyn.

It turns out, they have more in common than either could have expected. Yesterday Rev. Al Sharpton, 52, said he was stunned to find out that he was descended from a slave owned by the relatives of the late U.S. senator Strom Thurmond.

"It was probably the most shocking thing in my life," Mr. Sharpton told a news conference yesterdayafter the New York tabloid Daily News revealed the connection.

With Mr. Sharpton's blessing, the newspaper had asked genealogists to trace his roots. Researchers at Ancestory.com say they discovered that Mr. 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 sent to South Carolina to work off the "debts of the estate" of Ms. Thurmond's husband.

Megan Smolenyak, the chief family historian for Ancestry.com, said the connection was unearthed using papers that included indenture documents and census, marriage and death records.

"When Ancestry.com walked me through my family history, it was chilling to see proof that I am only three generations from slavery," Mr. Sharpton said. "It's no longer speculation. Who would have imagined that I would have anything in common with Strom Thurmond, let alone share roots?"

Mr. Thurmond, of South Carolina, was once considered an icon of racial segregation and he helped presage the modern conservative Republic Party in the South. During his 1948 bid for U.S. president -- as a Democrat -- he promised to preserve segregation.

In that campaign, he minced no words in spelling out his views on racial mixing: "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."

In 1957, he filibustered for more than 24 hours against a civil-rights bill.

In his final political campaign in 1996, he vowed: "We cannot and I shall not give up on our mission to right the 40-year wrongs of liberalism."

But Mr. Thurmond was thought to be mellower later in his long life. He died in 2003 at the age of 100 as one of the longest-serving senators in U.S. history. He became a Republican in 1964.

Since the 1970s, rumours circulated that Mr. Thurmond had fathered a black love child, but it was only after he died that Essie Mae Washington-Williams revealed that she was the daughter he fathered with a 15-year-old black maid when he was 22.

The revelation opened the door on the private life of one of America's most notorious politicians and put a human face on the taboo issue of interracial sex in the Old South.

Mr. Sharpton, who ran for president in 2004 on a ticket of racial justice, said he met Mr. Thurmond only once, in 1991, when he visited Washington with the late soul singer James Brown, who knew Mr. Thurmond. Mr. Sharpton said the meeting was "awkward."

"I was not happy to meet him because of what he had done all his life," Mr. Sharpton said.

Ellen Senter, one of Mr. Thurmond's relatives, said, "I doubt you can find many native South Carolinians today whose family, if you traced them back far enough, didn't own slaves," according to the Daily News. "And it is wonderful that [Mr. Sharpton] was able to become what he is in spite of what his forefather was."

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