Black history month ended with a bang this year. The fabulous end-of-February surprise, of course, was the revelation that an ancestor of the Rev. Al Sharpton was once held in slavery by a relative of the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond.
It's no surprise that Sharpton's ancestors were enslaved. That could be said for a majority of African-Americans. It's not even surprising that the identity of the slave owners was revealed.
"The surprising thing was that it was hooked up with Thurmond," said historian Herb Boyd, a former Detroiter and author or editor of 18 books. "The irony of it was you have a person with such a strong political position was hooked up with another family of such a strong political position."
Sharpton, one of the most outspoken African-American leaders in recent years, ran for president in 2004 on a platform largely concerned with civil rights. Thurmond, who died in 2003 at 100 years old, ran for president in 1948 on an anti-integrationist platform (to put it politely).
Could it be that while Thurmond's ancestors sat in the parlor discussing politics and creating their family legacy, Sharpton's family was in the kitchen doing the same thing? Hmm ...
To pile irony upon irony, after his death it was revealed that Thurmond who was so old when he died it seems that he could have seen slavery firsthand fathered a child (Essie Mae Washington) with the family's African-American maid and had secretly been giving her money for years.
Although he is said to have become more moderate in later years, Thurmond is so strongly identified with racist views that in 2002 when Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) suggested that Thurmond should have won the presidency in 1948, he was drummed out of his position as majority leader.
Race is a complicated issue in the United States.
Aside from the fact that they are such high-profile names, the real deal is that revelations such as the Sharpton-Thurmond news are becoming not-so-unusual for African-Americans. Kalimah Johnson is one Detroiter who has been down that road.
"It tickled me," Johnson says of the news.
Johnson, a cultural entrepreneur whose projects range from natural hair care to poetry slams, found and contacted the family that used to own her ancestors while trying to trace her lineage back to Africa.
"In 2004, I decided to sit down and watch the whole of Roots. I had never seen Roots all the way through," Johnson said.
Inspired by the groundbreaking miniseries, she began questioning family members about their heritage. Eventually her aunt gave her a document concerning a great-great-great-uncle who had served in the Union army during the Civil War. When this uncle died, a legal wrangle over who would receive his pension created a paper trail. The uncle's mother ended up getting the pension legal help from her former owners, whom she had continued to work for, aided the outcome.
The uncle had a brother who also fought in the Civil War. He was Johnson's great-great-great-grandfather. Johnson was able to order his records from the government. This documentation led her to a plantation in Georgetown, Ky. Johnson called the Georgetown Historical Museum and talked to the town historian.
"She didn't seem jarred or surprised or anything. She was delighted," Johnson says. "She knew which family member, Betty Wooten, to tell me to call. ... The first call, I didn't know what to expect. I was afraid she would say she didn't care and didn't want to talk to me. I knew I had to figure out a way to talk to her."
Wooten was receptive. "We talked and we cried and processed over the phone," Johnson says. "What she said was that she knew it was true about her family but they never talked about it."
A few months later, Johnson went to Georgetown to meet Wooten. They got along well. Johnson has a feminist perspective about their relationship.
"We connected on a level of oppression just by being women," Johnson said. "That she didn't know much meant they were women and didn't have access to knowing the business of the family."
Johnson met a female cousin of Wooten's who was more protective of the family history and less open she didn't meet any men of the family. Kalimah and Betty were curious and had discussions about racism and the status of their families.
"Even through all the stuff, this black family and white family can sit down together and talk," Johnson said. "She is fully aware of the benefits she has reaped from being the descendant of a slave owner. It was pretty obvious, the material things, the resources and support she had."
Like many others, Johnson's story is a quieter one than Sharpton's. It wasn't played out in the media's grand theater, but in the private lives of individuals who search and have to come to grips with their heritage. Still, Johnson sees some good in the recent uproar.
"I thought that it might be an opportunity for Al Sharpton to have the discussion about what that kind of history means," she said.
As more and more African-Americans research their pasts, they are coming up with some remarkable information. Boyd's family is a case in point.
"My half-brother did a genealogical study that took us back to 1840 and it turned white," Boyd said. "He traced it back to royalty, James the III and Sir Robert Boyd, 17th century stuff."
Boyd, who teaches classes on the history of Harlem and of the civil rights movement at the City University of New York, was at the press conference when Sharpton announced the Thurmond news.
"Sharpton sparked a real discussion," Boyd said.
In this post-Roots era enhanced by DNA identification, black Americans are increasingly searching for their African heritage. While DNA can give you a general idea of your geographical and tribal origins, it's paper documentation in America that's revealing the unintended findings about who once held their people as property. The search for Africa often ends on a farm down South.
Well, the more that comes to light the better. The more solid facts are introduced into diagnosing the festering, national illness that plagues us, the better chance there is to heal it. Facing the truth seems the best way to resolve any situation.
Now I'd like to hear about high-profile whites finding that their ancestors were once black slaves or maybe blacks finding that other blacks once owned their ancestors. Those will be humdingers to discuss.
Please, please, please
As of this writing Sharpton's good friend and brother of the pompadour, James Brown, has still not been buried. He died on Christmas! Even the win-the-body-of-Anna Nicole Smith sweepstakes only took a few weeks. Somebody get up offa that thing and bury the godfather of soul.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]