Bob Herbert

The Reverend Al Sharpton seemed subdued, quiet, reflective - which was unusual. Just when we thought the news couldn't get any weirder, we learned this week, via The Daily News of New York, that Sharpton's great-grandfather was a slave who was owned by relatives of Sen. Strom Thurmond, the longtime archsegregationist who ran for president as a Dixiecrat in 1948.

"There's not enough troops in the army," Thurmond told a screaming crowd during that campaign, "to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our schools and into our homes."

Sharpton seemed a little shaken by the revelation. "You're always kind of thinking that your ancestors were slaves," he said. "But this was my grandfather's father. I knew my grandfather. It's eerie when it becomes so personal."

The days of slavery are closer than Americans tend to think, and they were crueler than we tend to realize. Sharpton's great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was sent with his wife and two children from South Carolina to Florida so a woman named Julia Thurmond Sharpton could send them out as laborers to pay off debts left by her late husband. Julia Sharpton was a first cousin, twice removed, of Strom Thurmond.

"It was just so clear that they were nothing but property," Sharpton said. "The complete dehumanization - I don't think I fully understood it until this hit home."

There's a great deal that Americans don't fully understand about slavery. It's such an uncomfortable subject that the temptation is to relegate it to the distant past and move on. But the long tentacles of that evil institution are still with us.

The sheer size of the phenomenon of slavery, which was woven into the very being of the early Americas, is not well known today. The historian David Brion Davis, in his book "Inhuman Bondage," tells us:

"By 1820 nearly 8.7 million slaves had departed from Africa for the New World, as opposed to only 2.6 million whites, many of them convicts or indentured servants, who had left Europe.Thus by 1820 African slaves constituted almost 77 percent of the enormous population that had sailed toward the Americas, and from 1760 to 1820 this emigrating flow included 5.6 African slaves for every European."

One of the points Davis emphasized was that the commodities produced in such tremendous volume by slaves - sugar, tobacco, coffee, chocolate, cotton - were crucial to the formation of the world's first global mass market.

Instead of reaping rewards for this seminal role in the creation of a rich and powerful nation, blacks have been relentlessly vilified by a profoundly racist society and frozen out of most of America's bounty. Consigned to the bottom of the caste heap after emancipation, and denied some of the most basic human rights, black became the convenient depository of whatever blame and negative stereotypes whites chose to cast their way.

The abject state ruthlessly imposed upon blacks for so long became, perversely, proof of their inferiority.

Slavery, like the past, as Faulkner reminded us, is not dead. It's not even past. It's not something that you can wish away.

The other night Sharpton flew into Miami to attend a conference. At the airport someone asked for his autograph.

"It was the first time in my life that I thought about why my name is Sharpton," he said. "I mean this whole thing is as personal as why your name is what it is. You're named after someone who owned your great-grandparent."

return to index