NEW YORK — The Rev. Al Sharpton is a descendant of a slave owned by relatives of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond — a discovery the civil rights activist called “shocking” on Sunday.
Sharpton learned of his connection to Thurmond, once a prominent defender of segregation, last week through the Daily News, which asked genealogists to trace his roots.
“It was probably the most shocking thing in my life,” Sharpton said at a news conference Sunday, the same day the tabloid revealed the story.
Some of Thurmond’s relatives said the nexus also came as a surprise to them. Doris Strom Costner, a distant cousin who said she knew the late senator all her life, said Sunday she “never heard of such a thing.”
“My momma never would talk to me about nothing like that,” Costner said of ancestors who owned slaves. “She only talked to me about good things.”
The revelations surfaced after Ancestry.com contacted a Daily News reporter who agreed to have his own family tree done. The intrigued reporter then turned around and asked Sharpton if he wanted to participate. Sharpton said he told the paper, “Go for it.”
The genealogists, who were not paid by the newspaper, uncovered the ancestral ties using a variety of documents that included census, marriage and death records.
They found that Sharpton’s great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave owned by Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Strom Thurmond’s great-great-grandfather. Coleman Sharpton was later freed.
Thurmond, of South Carolina, was once considered an icon of racial segregation. During his 1948 bid for president, he promised to preserve segregation and, in 1957, he filibustered for more than 24 hours against a civil rights bill.
Sharpton, who ran for president in 2004 on a ticket of racial justice, said he met Thurmond only once in 1991 when he visited Washington, D.C., with the late soul singer James Brown, who knew Thurmond. Sharpton said the meeting was “awkward.”
“I was not happy to meet him because what he had done all his life,” Sharpton said.
Thurmond was seen as softening his segregation stance later in his life. He died in 2003, at 100. The long-serving senator was originally a Democrat but became a Republican in 1964.
Thurmond’s children have acknowledged that Thurmond fathered a biracial daughter.