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Slavery links Al Sharpton, Strom Thurmond

Austin Fenner
New York Daily News (MCT)

NEW YORK -- The Rev. Al Sharpton, one of America's most powerful black leaders, has unearthed a shattering family secret -- his ancestors were slaves owned by relatives of the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond.

It is an ironic twist of fate that inexorably links one of the most vocal civil rights activists and an icon of Deep South segregation.

A team of some of the country's most trusted genealogists spent two weeks examining Sharpton's family background.

Sharpton learned the results of their work last week. Sharpton talked to the New York Daily News about the emotional shock of learning how his family was so closely linked to a man who embodied everything he despises.

The Rev. Al Sharpton sat silently in the sanctity of his Manhattan radio studio as his family's roots were laid bare before him.

With each revelation, the feeling of disbelief grew. His lips drew thin and his face tightened as the findings, projected onto a beige wall, brought home the enormity of the moment.

Sharpton -- one of America's most vocal and prominent civil rights campaigners, a man who has dedicated most of his grown life to furthering the cause of the black community -- was stunned to learn how his history was bizarrely intertwined with a man with whom on the surface he had nothing in common -- the late right-wing Sen. Thurmond.

It is a history linked in the degradation and cruelty of the slave trade in the South -- a history that Sharpton himself was totally unaware of until last week.

The journey into the past began after the Daily News gave him the opportunity to explore his family's history with the help of a team of experts from Ancestry.com -- a company that has archived more than 5 billion documents around the world and has 55 million additional pieces of data dedicated to African-American ancestry.

In a series of numbing revelations, Sharpton learned how:

His great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave in South Carolina.

Coleman Sharpton, a woman and two children -- believed by genealogists to be his wife and kids -- were given as a gift to Julia Thurmond, and were forced to move to Florida.

Julia Thurmond's grandfather is Strom Thurmond's great-great-grandfather.

Once freed, Coleman Sharpton earned a living as an elderly wood hauler, and fathered a son, Coleman Jr., who would go on to be a minister -- like his grandson, the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The enormity of the political and social irony was not lost of Sharpton, as the epic story of his family was laid out before him.

"I have always wondered what was the background of my family," he said. "But nothing -- nothing -- could prepare me for this."

For the better part of two weeks, a team of genealogists -- led by Megan Smolenyak, an ancestry scholar who has written four books and was the lead researcher for the PBS "Ancestors" series -- unpeeled the layers of Sharpton's family tree.

They unearthed historic documents, including an 1861 slave contract that confirmed that Coleman Sharpton was indeed sent from Edgefield County, S.C., to Liberty County, Fla., where he would work until given his freedom at the end of the Civil War.

They found incontrovertible data that the woman who owned Sharpton's great-grandfather was related to Sen. Thurmond, a champion of segregation.

But they would break the news to Sharpton slowly and gently, letting him absorb each piece of information before proceeding with the next revelation.

Sharpton sat two feet from a projection screen, Smolenyak standing several feet behind, manipulating each new slide as her soft voice led the way through this country's ugly involvement with slavery.

She walked Sharpton through the slave contract, showing how Coleman Sharpton was sent from South Carolina to Florida by his white owner, Alexander Sharpton, to work for his four grandchildren. Coleman Sharpton took his surname from his white owner, a practice common among slaves.

Smolenyak explained how Alexander Sharpton's son Jefferson Sharpton died broke in 1860, leaving his family in debt.

Smolenyak said Alexander Sharpton, a wealthy slave owner, wanted to help out his son's widow.

"The document we found was known as an indenture," Smolenyak said. "It shows that Jefferson Sharpton died in debt and he had no will. His father (Alexander Sharpton) steps in to help the family."

The original copy of the indenture, which sits in the Liberty County Courthouse in Florida, reads:

"Describes negro to wit, Coleman, age 25 years, Biddy (female) age 22 years old, Harrison aged about 4 years and Bachus aged about 8 years," it states.

"Together with the future increase of the said female slave."

Sharpton stared at the image, carefully reading each word to himself.

"You know for real that you are three generations away from slavery," Sharpton would later remark.

Smolenyak said the indenture awarded Coleman and three others to the grandchildren -- but placed them in the temporary custody of another relative in Florida, who was to put Coleman and the others to work to pay off the deceased son's debts.

"He (Alexander Sharpton) says okay, I'm going to give these four slaves to these four grandchildren," Smolenyak told the Reverend.

"I'm interested in those four (white) kids because they are essentially inheriting your great-grandfather, right?" Smolenyak said.

Sharpton nodded in silence.

Smolenyak then told Sharpton how she delved into the family tree of the mother of the four children.

"Their mother was a Thurmond," Smolenyak said. "Julia Ann Thurmond."

"Was what?" Sharpton asked.

"A Thurmond," Smolenyak replied. "Jefferson Sharpton's wife was a Thurmond."

After an uncomfortable pause, the genealogist continued.

"These children, who were the last owners of Coleman, were related to Strom Thurmond through their mother," she said.

Sharpton's face tightened, and the room fell silent as he digested the news.

"Strom Thurmond's family owned my family," Sharpton said aloud in disbelief.

Sharpton's cheeks slowly relaxed, as he gradually took in the evidence laid out before him.

"Julia Thurmond Sharpton's grandfather and Strom Thurmond's great-great-grandfather, William Thurmond, are the same man," Smolenyak explained. "Julia Thurmond Sharpton is Strom Thurmond's first cousin twice removed."

"It's chilling," Sharpton said. "It's amazing."

The genealogists gave Sharpton more time to absorb the significance of what he had just heard.

"The family that owned my great-grandfather was related to Strom Thurmond's family?" Sharpton said. "Now that's amazing.

"I had no idea about the interlocking past," his face flush with discovery. "I don't know if you know how crazy this is going to be when it gets out.

"It's going to be crazy."

Then he couldn't resist acknowledging the political irony of the two disparate men being joined at the genealogical hip.

"Maybe, I'm the revenge of Coleman," Sharpton joked.

"They (Thurmonds) are just recovering from his black child, now they are about to get the bomb dropped on them," he roared.

The child that Sharpton was referring to is Essie Mae Washington Williams, now 82. After Thurmond's death in 2003, it was disclosed that he had fathered her when he was 22, and her mother, a black maid for the Thurmond family, was 16.

After contemplating the Thurmond revelation, the genealogists got back to business.

Smolenyak told Sharpton of a 1900 census record that indicated the 65-year-old Coleman Sharpton, by then emancipated, earned a living as a wood hauler.

He had a son whom he named Coleman Sharpton Jr., who worked as a turpentine dipper and eventually worked as a Florida grocery-store owner during the Depression. Coleman Sharpton Jr. also was a minister -- something the Rev. Al never knew about his grandfather.

As the presentation wound to a close, Sharpton's oldest child, Dominique, 20, unexpectedly walked in.

"Hey, come here!" he beckoned. "This is my daughter," he told the genealogists.

Then as his daughter approached, Sharpton grabbed her by the arm and said, "I want to shock you."

He walked her over to an oversized chart displayed on an easel in the center of the room, pointing enthusiastically at the names of their ancestors.

"They did an ancestry chart that's going to be in the Daily News," he said. "This is me. It goes to my father and my grandfather."

He would then do what the genealogists had done in two hours, taking his daughter on a quick tour of their roots.

"This is my great-grandfather, and he was owned by Strom Thurmond's relatives," he said.

Her response was similar to her father's an hour before.

"What?" she said. "I don't even know what to say."

Sharpton was asked about the significance of being able to discover his family tree.

"It tells you who you are. Where you come from. Where your bloodline is," Sharpton said. "When you know directly your great-grandfather was a slave -- owned by the Thurmonds. Your grandfather was a turpentine worker. It kind of like makes you feel, you can't waste your life."

"You have opportunities that they didn't have," he added. "It gives you a sense of obligation."

___

(New York Daily News correspondents Jose Martinez and Mike Jaccarino contributed to this report.)

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