The Rev. Al Sharpton Sunday at The Daily News’s offices in Manhattan discussing his family’s historical connection to Strom Thurmond’s.
On the eve of the Civil War, in segregated Florida, a white man died in debt at age 40, leaving his wife, Julia Thurmond Sharpton, alone to raise their four children and to honor his financial obligations.
Determined to offer a helping hand, Mrs. Sharpton’s father-in-law, a plantation owner in South Carolina, gave her a gift: four slaves, two adults and two children, who would work to pay off the money owed.
In that transaction, the bloodlines of two emblematic figures of the next century, each representing an opposite side of America’s racial divide, intersected. Mrs. Sharpton was a first cousin, twice removed, of Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a longtime segregationist. And one of the slaves given to her, Coleman Sharpton, was the paternal great-grandfather of the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the most vocal and recognizable civil rights leaders of our time.
The connection, sealed in a slave contract signed in 1861, might have remained unknown had it not been for a Web site’s efforts to publicize its extensive collection of African-American genealogy records, a reporter’s curiosity and Mr. Sharpton’s willingness to let researchers dig into his family’s past, a topic he often avoids discussing in public.
The results of the investigation, pieced together from census documents, slave narratives and birth and marriage registries, were unveiled yesterday in The Daily News, with the front-page headline, “Shock of My Life!”
“In the story of the Thurmonds and the Sharptons is the story of the shame and the glory of America,” Mr. Sharpton said at a news conference at the office of The Daily News yesterday, with the older of his two daughters, Dominique, standing behind him.
“The shame is that people were owned as property, and the shame is that I’m the heir of those who were property to the Thurmond family,” he said. “The glory is that Strom Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on a segregationist ticket; I ran in ’04 on a ticket for racial justice, and that shows what America can become, if you’re determined to beat” discrimination.
Mr. Sharpton said he had not heard from the Thurmonds and had no immediate plans of contacting them. “This is not family,” he said firmly. “This is property.”