NEW YORK – The Rev. Al Sharpton said Sunday it was "shocking" to learn he was descended from a slave owned by relatives of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond — a man he'd met only once in an encounter he called "awkward."
The civil rights leader learned of his connection to Thurmond, once a symbol of segregation, last week through The Daily News, which asked genealogists to trace Sharpton's roots.
"It was probably the most shocking thing in my life," Sharpton said at news conference Sunday, the same day the tabloid revealed the story.
The professional genealogists, who work for Ancestry.com, 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.
"Based on the paper trail, it seems pretty evident that the connection is there," said Mike Ward, a genealogist with Ancestry.com. Ward called the link "amazing."
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.
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.
But Thurmond was seen as softening his stance later in his long life. He died in 2003, at 100. The longest-serving senator in history, he was originally a Democrat but became a Republican in 1964.
His children have acknowledged that Thurmond fathered a biracial daughter. Essie Mae Washington-Williams' mother was a housekeeper in the home of Thurmond's parents.
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 as "awkward."
"I was not happy to meet him because what he had done all his life," Sharpton said.
Sharpton said he hadn't attempted to contact the Thurmond family. As far as he knew, the family hadn't tried to call him, either.
Some of Thurmond's relatives said the nexus also came as a surprise to them. A niece, Ellen Senter, said she would speak with Sharpton if he were interested.
"I doubt you can find many native South Carolinians today whose family, if you traced them back far enough, didn't own slaves," said Senter, 61, of Columbia, S.C., told The Daily News.
She added: "And it is wonderful that (Sharpton) was able to become what he is in spite of what his forefather was."
One of the late senator's sons, Paul Thurmond, and a nephew, Barry Bishop, declined comment, the Daily News said.