NEW YORK -- Genealogists have revealed that the Rev. Al Sharpton is a descendant of a slave owned by relatives of the late Senator Strom Thurmond -- a discovery the civil rights activist yesterday called "shocking."
Sharpton learned of his connection to Thurmond, once a prominent defender of segregation, last week from the Daily News, which asked genealogists to trace his roots.
"It was probably the most shocking thing in my life," Sharpton said at a press conference yesterday, 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 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 asked Sharpton if he wanted to participate. Sharpton said he told the reporter, "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.
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 with the late soul singer James Brown, who knew Thurmond.
Sharpton said the meeting was awkward. "I was not happy to meet him because of what he had done all his life," he 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 he fathered a biracial daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Her mother was a housekeeper in the home of Thurmond's parents.
Telephone messages left yesterday for Strom Thurmond Jr. and a lawyer who once represented Essie Mae Washington-Williams were not returned.