A new genealogical study shows that a prominent African-American civil rights activist is descended from a slave owned in the mid-nineteenth century by the family of a onetime segregationist U.S. senator. Leta Hong Fincher has more on the discovery, which sheds light on the history of American slavery.
Former U.S. presidential candidate Al Sharpton said Sunday the discovery was the most shocking moment in his life, triggering a surge of emotions. "Everything from anger and outrage to reflection and some pride and glory."
The study was conducted by genealogists working with the website Ancestry.com and the newspaper, New York Daily News. The documents show that Sharpton's great-grandfather was a slave owned by a distant cousin of the late South Carolina Senator, Strom Thurmond.
The connection links two significant historical figures on opposing sides of the U.S racial divide: Sharpton is one of America's most prominent civil rights activists who ran for president in 2004. Sharpton asked at the time, "Are we going back to an America where only white male land owners need to engage in the electoral process?"
The late Strom Thurmond opposed civil rights for many of his 50 years in the U.S. Senate and made his own bid for the presidency in 1948, promising to preserve racial segregation. "There's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to take down segregation," he said then.
Mike Ward of Ancestry.com says the genealogical evidence linking the two figures is strong. "Based on the paper trail that we've been able to follow, it seems pretty evident that the connection is there."
The key to the connection was an 1861 slave contract, along with census, marriage and birth records documenting Sharpton's roots. "In this story of the Thurmonds and the Sharptons is the story of the shame and glory of America,” says Sharpton. “The shame is that people were owned as property. The glory is that Strom Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on the segregationist ticket. I ran in 2004 on a ticket for racial justice. And it showed what America can become."
Sharpton says he hopes the news of his roots will help America deal with the lingering pains of slavery and racial conflict.