Sharpton’s ancestor was owned by Thurmond kin

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Al Sharpton said Sunday it was the “most shocking” news of his life when the civil rights leader learned he was a descendant of a slave owned by relatives of Strom Thurmond, the late senator who once led the segregationist South.

“I couldn’t describe the emotions that I’ve had over the last two or three days thinking about this,” he said at a news conference. “Everything from anger and outrage to reflection, and to some pride and glory.”

Sharpton found out about the connection to Thurmond last week after the New York Daily News obtained his approval to work with genealogists to trace his ancestry.

Researchers from Ancestry .com traced Sharpton’s roots using a database with access to 5 billion records including birth and death certificates, slave narratives, census and bank records, and United States Colored Troops documents.

They discovered that Sharpton’s great-grandfather Coleman Sharpton was a slave owned by Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Strom Thurmond’s great-great-grandfather.


“I know there’s no such thing as a boring family tree,” said the chief family historian for, Megan Smolenyak, who presented the findings to Sharpton on Thursday. “I knew we would find something, but I certainly didn’t anticipate this.”

The information also showed his great-grandfather had been freed. Smolenyak said Sharpton was subdued and stunned when she told him about his family history.

“It’s one thing to know or suspect perhaps your ancestors were slaves,” she said, “but it makes it much more real when you hear names and find out how they were related to you.”

In a phone interview Sunday, Sharpton said he had one “awkward” encounter with the South Carolina Republican, in 1991 on a visit to Washington, D.C., in which the two barely spoke.

Sharpton said he had not yet decided whether he would meet with Thurmond’s relatives.

Thurmond’s niece Ellen Senter, 61, of Columbia, S.C., confirmed that she had told the Daily News she would speak to Sharpton if he wanted to talk. She declined to comment further.

Thurmond, who died in 2003 at age 100, was the longest-serving U.S. senator. He fiercely resisted integration and was known for his opposition to the growing civil rights movement in the late 1940s.

He once declared: “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our eating places, our schools, our churches, our swimming pools and our theaters.”

But his political stance later mellowed.

Sharpton said he found it ironic that Thurmond “ran for president as the segregationist candidate in 1948, and I’m the great-grandson of a slave who ran for president on a civil rights platform.”

Sharpton, who made a White House bid in 2004, once compared Thurmond’s secret that he had a half-black daughter to the Democratic Party’s relationship with black voters -- saying both had been treated as situations to be kept “in the background.”

Thurmond’s family has acknowledged that he had a daughter -- Essie Mae Washington Williams -- with his parents’ housekeeper, who was black.

Sharpton said it was hard to relate to Washington Williams’ connection to Thurmond because “her situation was based on a relationship,” he said. “This was based on property.”

Sharpton became active in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, when he was appointed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to help improve job opportunities for black people.

He has since become a national figure seeking racial and social justice, speaking out on issues such as police brutality.

In 2002, Sharpton called for the resignation of then-Senate Republican leader Trent Lott after he said that his state of Mississippi was proud to have voted for Thurmond in 1948. “If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either,” Lott said. He later apologized for his remarks.

Sharpton said the recent news brought back memories of when he led the protests against Lott, who later resigned from the leadership position, as well as conversations he had over the years with civil rights leaders such as Jackson about the man they disagreed with over issues of segregation.

“Thurmond,” he said, “was always the symbol of what we detested.”

Sharpton said his connection to Thurmond “makes me feel my destiny was to fight for civil rights, and do what my great-grandfather wanted me to do.”