NEW YORK – As Florida and other states seek to adopt a warped view of history and slavery, Rev. Al Sharpton traveled with his daughters to the former Edgefield, South Carolina plantation where his great-grandfather was a slave to rediscover his own family roots. His visit to the former Sharpton plantation was the first since 2007, when the New York Daily News discovered his family’s link to former U.S. Senator and staunch segregationist Strom Thurmond.
“I traveled to Edgefield on the eve of the March on Washington to remind myself and my daughters what we are still fighting for all these years later. They are four generations removed from slavery, and I wanted us all to appreciate how far we’ve come but also how far we still must go. We all understood it as we walked the grounds Coleman Sharpton was forced to work as a slave. We saw it in the beams our ancestors set in the master’s house. We certainly felt it as we stood in the shack where an untold number of slaves lived.
It was important to live this personal history because it is shared by millions of Black Americans who descend from slaves. We stood in that shack to remind Governor DeSantis and those who wish to twist Black history that you cannot erase our story. We will continue to tell it because it is the truth – one this entire nation must fully accept if we are ever going to be a fair nation. As we prepare for the March on Washington, we must ensure Black history lives and breathes every day of the year, so we remember what – and who – we are fighting for.”
In 2007, the New York Daily News approached Rev. Sharpton about exploring his family history with researchers at Ancestry.com. That inquiry found records of Coleman Sharpton Sr., his great-grandfather, who was a slave in Edgefield, S.C., where a road still bears the family name. Until that point, the civil rights leader was under the impression his paternal ancestors had always been from Florida. He was surprised to discover Coleman was born in South Carolina, where he was owned by Alexander Sharpton.
The biggest shock came when he discovered Alexander Sharpton’s son, Jefferson, married Julia Thurmond. When Jefferson died in debt, the elder Sharpton sent Coleman and his family to Liberty, Florida, with Julia to work off what was owed. Julia’s grandfather was the great grandfather of Strom Thurmond, the longtime U.S. Senator who became the face of pro-segregation at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Alexander Sharpton and several Thurmonds are buried in a cemetery down the road from where Coleman worked as a slave.
Once Coleman Sharpton received his freedom after the Civil War, he worked as a turpentine dipper. The job was so brutal it required Coleman to wash himself with gasoline at the end of every day to remove the sticky substance.
“Every day from now on, when I write my name, I will think about how I got that name,” Rev. Sharpton wrote in a 2007 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “I will think about how Al Sharpton, the white slave owner, sent my family to Strom Thurmond’s relatives to work off Thurmond debts. America’s shame is that I am the heir of those who were property to the Thurmond family.”
Sharpton’s visit comes as Florida policymakers continue their campaign against Black history. Earlier this year, Rev. Sharpton led a march against Governor DeSantis’ efforts to remove Black history from the AP curriculum. He has since vocally opposed the state’s subsequent efforts to adopt lessons that Black Americans learned benefited from slavery because they were forced to work on plantations.
Keeping this history alive has become a pillar of the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington on Saturday, August 26th. Rev. Sharpton has worked with Martin Luther King III and Arndrea Waters King to bring together Black, Latino, Jewish, AAPI, LGBTQ+, women, labor, and other groups whose rights and history are under attack.