Sunday, February 25, 2007

Amazing Story - Genealogist says Slavery Links Sharpton, Thurmond Families

As is often the case, understanding a historical truth through a more personalized lens brings home the sheer evil of the past.

From the New York Daily News:

In a revelation that will stun the nation, the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of America's most powerful black leaders, has unearthed a shattering family secret - his ancestors were slaves owned by relatives of the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond.

It is an ironic twist of fate that inexorably links one of the most vocal civil rights activists and an icon of Deep South segregation.

... The Rev. Al Sharpton sat silently in the sanctity of his Manhattan radio studio as his family's roots were laid bare before him.

With each revelation, the feeling of disbelief grew. His lips drew thin and his face tightened as the findings, projected onto a beige wall, brought home the enormity of the moment.

Sharpton - one of America's most vocal and prominent civil rights campaigners, a man who has dedicated most of his grown life to furthering the cause of the black community - was stunned to learn how his history was bizarrely intertwined with a man with whom on the surface he had nothing in common - the late right-wing Sen. Strom Thurmond.

It is a history linked in the degradation and cruelty of the slave trade in the South - a history that Sharpton himself was totally unaware of until this week.

...In a series of numbing revelations, Sharpton learned how:

  • His great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave in South Carolina.
  • Coleman Sharpton, a woman and two children - believed by genealogists to be his wife and kids - were given as a gift to Julia Thurmond, and were forced to move to Florida.
  • Julia Thurmond's grandfather is Strom Thurmond's great-great-grandfather.
The late Senator Thurmond's family is having none of it, however:

Relatives of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond greeted news of the family's shocking connection to the Rev. Al Sharpton yesterday with some nervous chuckles and one outright denial.

"That's a bunch of baloney," said Barry Bishop, the son of one of Thurmond's sisters.

"I've never heard anything about it," said Bishop, of Greenville, S.C.

"Well, have you seen documents?" he asked.

When told that genealogists from had located historic documents that confirmed that Sharpton's great-grandfather Coleman Sharpton was enslaved by Thurmond relatives in the 1800s, Bishop responded, "Since I don't know anything about it, I'm afraid I can't comment."

The senator's niece Ellen Senter, 61, said she had never heard of the link to Sharpton either, but questioned its relevance.

"If you go that far back in history, you're going to find lots of people connected to each other from different walks of life," said Senter, of Columbia, S.C. "In fact, I doubt you can find many native South Carolinians today whose family, if you traced them back far enough, didn't own slaves.

In another story, related to the Sharpton news primarily by its timing, the State of Virginia's assemby apologized Saturday for the state's historical role in American slavery:

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Meeting on the grounds of the former Confederate Capitol, the Virginia General Assembly voted unanimously Saturday to express "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery.

... The resolution passed the House 96-0 and cleared the 40-member Senate on a unanimous voice vote. It does not require Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's approval.

The measure also expressed regret for "the exploitation of Native Americans."

The resolution was introduced as Virginia begins its celebration of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, where the first Africans arrived in 1619. Richmond, home to a popular boulevard lined with statues of Confederate heroes, later became another point of arrival for Africans and a slave-trade hub.

The resolution says government-sanctioned slavery "ranks as the most horrendous of all depredations of human rights and violations of our founding ideals in our nation's history, and the abolition of slavery was followed by systematic discrimination, enforced segregation, and other insidious institutions and practices toward Americans of African descent that were rooted in racism, racial bias, and racial misunderstanding."

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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