Thurmond Child Says Sharpton Overreacted
Tuesday, February 27, 2007; 7:35 PM
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The biracial daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond defended the former segregationist Tuesday and said the Rev. Al Sharpton "overreacted" upon learning he descends from a slave owned by the senator's relatives.
"In spite of the fact he was a segregationist, he did many wonderful things for black people. ... I'm not sure that Reverend Sharpton is aware of all the things he did," said Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 81, who was in South Carolina for a speech. "I kind of feel that there was a little overreaction."
But Sharpton said Washington-Williams was reacting to a father-daughter relationship, while he was reacting to "a property ownership."
"I think I underreacted, if anything," Sharpton said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
Professional genealogists working for 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.
When Sharpton learned of the link last week, he said: "It was probably the most shocking thing in my life."
"When someone is handing you the actual papers of your blood relatives _ indentured servants' papers and the tax rolls of where they were property _ then it's no longer some objective, nebulous knowledge," Sharpton said. "It became an in-my-face, direct kind of subjective situation."
Washington-Williams, who knew that Thurmond was her father for most of her life but only made it public after the senator's death in 2003, said she was surprised when she learned of Sharpton's link to the family. His many television appearances have bothered her, though.
"We all know that several generations back, people were in slavery," she said.
The longtime South Carolina senator was once considered an icon of racial segregation. During his 1948 bid for president, he promised to preserve segregation and filibustered for more than 24 hours against a civil rights bill in 1957. He softened his segregation stance later in his life.
The senator was considered "very approachable" by his constituents, both black and white, she said.
Washington-Williams' mother was a housekeeper in the home of Thurmond's parents. While he never publicly acknowledged Washington-Williams as his daughter, Thurmond supported her financially.
Sharpton, who ran for president in 2004 on a ticket of racial justice, said he met Thurmond in 1991 and found the meeting "awkward."
Sharpton now wants a DNA test to see whether he is related to the Thurmonds. If that test turns out positive, Washington-Williams said she would welcome Sharpton to the family.
A telephone message left Tuesday at Strom Thurmond Jr.'s law office was not immediately returned.