LAST WEEK, I received the shock of my life. I found out that my family was enslaved by the family of the leading segregationist of our time, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. I don't know whether Thurmond himself was my blood relative; there has been no DNA testing yet. What I do know now is the horrific details of how my great-grandfather and family were slaves, directly owned and leased out like chattel animals. This revelation about my ancestors has made slavery real to me. It is no longer an abstract horror. It is my family history — and the Thurmonds'.
Sen. Thurmond's hatred for blacks was so strong that, in 1948, he walked out of the Democratic National Convention and ran for president on a segregationist ticket. Words cannot fully describe the feelings I had when I learned the awful truth. Not only am I the descendant of slaves, but my family had to endure the particular agony of being slaves to the Thurmonds, the symbol of everything about America that I have fought to change. I felt humiliated and prideful; reflective and angry; oppressed and uplifted. I thought about what it must have been like to be a slave, and then what my great-grandfather would have thought about me and about my strengths, my weaknesses. Am I doing enough in my life to make him proud? It also made me reach out to my father, someone I have not really spoken to often because he left my family when I was just 10 years old.
My great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton Sr., and his family were owned by a white woman named Julia Ann Thurmond shortly before the Civil War. They lived in, of all places, Liberty, Fla. Before that, they were the property of the white slave owner Alexander Sharpton of South Carolina. Sharpton's son, Jefferson, had married Miss Thurmond, and died in debt, so Sharpton sent my great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, and his family to Liberty in 1861 to work off the debts. Julia Thurmond Sharpton inherited my great-grandfather. Julia Thurmond's grandfather was also Strom Thurmond's great-grandfather.
When Coleman Sharpton finally shook off the chains of slavery, he became a turpentine dipper — work so awful that, when you finished a day's work, you had to wash yourself in gasoline to get the stickiness off your body. But the grim reality of my ancestry, and the ancestry of millions of African Americans, is that I am sure even the torturous job of turpentine dipping gave my great-grandfather joy because he was finally free and recognized as a man, no longer the property of someone else.
Every day from now on, when I write my name, I will think about how I got that name. I will think about how Al Sharpton, the white slave owner, sent my family to Strom Thurmond's relatives to work off Thurmond debts. America's shame is that I am the heir of those who were property to the Thurmond family.
In the end, it is irrelevant whether Strom Thurmond and I are related by blood. Of course, so many African Americans have had to deal with the knowledge that they are the relatives of the whites who enslaved them. Still, I want to know the truth.
Obviously, the temptation here is to fall into the caldron of anger that swirls when you visualize your flesh and blood, most assuredly proud and strong, waking up every day enslaved. You have to hope they realized that they suffered so that one day their descendants could live the life that was stolen from them.
But rage will do no good for Coleman Sharpton's descendants or the Thurmond descendants. My family and the Thurmond family must rise above the ugly, shameful past that binds us, just as America must come out of denial and seek to repair the damage that slavery has done and to eliminate the bigotry that still lingers.
The news of my own past was brought to me unsolicited. But I hope all African Americans will seek their family history so we can dignify the memories of our forefathers and change the America of the future. And, if we can take that step, certainly all Americans, black and white, can join us.