March 5, 2007
CLARKS HILL, S.C..---Rev. Al Sharpton stopped in the Palmetto State today to connect his slave lineage after learning his great-grandfather was owned as property by one of Strom Thurmond's ancestors.
News 12 was in Edgefield County as he toured the plantation home and cemetery in Clarks Hill where his great-grandfather once lived and worked.
Today was a day of uncovering the past for the reverend, who encourages every African American to do the same, no matter how ugly or dark the truth may be.
He spent the morning touring the property and gravesides of those who owned a slave named Coleman Sharpton, his great-grandfather.
The family history begins with a man named Alexander Sharpton. He owned a slave named Coleman Sharpton. Alexander's son Jefferson died at a young age, and in debt. His children sent the slave, Coleman, to Julia Thurmond to work off that debt.
This all comes after ancestry.com historians started digging. They found the civil rights activist's relatives were owned by Strom Thurmond's family. Thurmond was a staunch segregationist who later changed his views.
Sharpton started the day by standing near the grave of Alexander Sharpton, who once owned his great-grandfather as property.
The slaves were said to have been buried near the 200 year old plantation house. The graves are hidden underneath leaves and marked by tiny stones, nearly lost to time.
"The only way to clear the future is to clear the past and clear the branches and leaves from their obscurity," Sharpton said.
It may never be clear which of his relatives are buried there. The stones are hidden in the shadows that reflect a dark period of American history.
"Fact is, I probably will never find my great grandfather, because even though he died free, he died poor," Sharpton said. "Not a lot of gravesites for slaves."
Those modest graves were a sharp contrast to the tall headstones dated in the 1800's of the Sharpton and Thurmond families, slave owners who gave Rev. Sharpton his family name.
"This man owned my great-grandfather and named him," Rev. Sharpton said of Alexander Sharpton. "That's not a reaction, that's a fact. And it's a fact I got to live with every time I write my name."
Led by ancestry.com's chief family historian, who made the discovery, and surrounded by a slew of media, Rev. Sharpton toured the plantation home in Edgefield County where his great-grandfather once worked and lived.
Sharpton says he used to travel this route often to see James Brown and even lived in North Augusta, but he never knew until now his connection to slavery was closer than he ever imagined.
"I was surprised to learn that connection and then to learn of Thurmond's, and how we're polar opposites...very shocking," he said.
"The fact is everyone has a Thurmond in their history if you're African American," Sharpton said. "Mine is a little more known, but mine is not a unique story."
But it's a story that's captured a lot of attention, and may have even more people doing the research and learning more about their own family history.
Ancestry.com gave us some of the documents they used to trace Al Sharpton's genealogy. Click here to view them.