NEW YORK — The Rev. Al Sharpton met Sen. Strom Thurmond only once, in 1991, when the civil rights activist visited Washington, D.C. The encounter was awkward.
"I was not happy to meet him because what he had done all his life," Sharpton said of the late South Carolina senator who was once a prominent defender of segregation.
Their paths intersected again Thursday, when Sharpton learned he was a descendant of a slave owned by Thurmond's relatives. The Daily News in New York, which asked genealogists to trace Sharpton's roots, told him what they had unearthed, leaving him stunned.
"It was probably the most shocking thing in my life," Sharpton said at a news conference Sunday, the day the tabloid revealed the story.
The professional genealogists, who work for Provo-based 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.
The revelations surfaced after the Web site 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 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.
Strom 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. One of the longest-serving senators in history, he was originally a Democrat but became a Republican in 1964.
His children have acknowledged that he fathered a biracial daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, whose mother was a housekeeper in the home of Thurmond's parents.
Sharpton, who campaigned for president in 2004 on a ticket of racial justice, said he hadn't attempted to contact the Thurmond family. As far as he knew, he said, the family hadn't tried to call him, either.
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 Sunday 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."
Telephone messages left by The Associated Press on Sunday for Strom Thurmond Jr. and an attorney who once represented Thurmond's biracial daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, were not returned.