America A democracy in the making:     

‘Slavery is not dead. It's not even past’

By Bob Herbert
The New York Times

The Rev. 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, that Mr. Sharpton's great-grandfather was a slave who was owned by relatives of Senator Strom Thurmond, the longtime arch segregationist who ran for president as a Dixiecrat in 1948.


"There's not enough troops in the Army," Mr. 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."


Mr. 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 we tend to think, and they were crueler than we tend to realize. Mr. 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.


 "They were sent there solely for that reason," Mr. Sharpton said. "To make money to pay her debt. It was just so clear that they were nothing but property. 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. Slavery was the foundation of the thriving consumer society that we have today and the wellspring of the racism that still poisons so many white attitudes and black lives.


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."


For most of the time between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the United States was governed by presidents who owned slaves.


One of the points Mr. Davis stressed 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.


"From the very beginnings," wrote Mr. Davis, " America was part black, and indebted to the appalling sacrifices of millions of individual blacks who cleared the forests and tilled the soil. Yet even the ardent opponents of slaveholding could seldom if ever acknowledge this basic fact."


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 the nation's bounty. Consigned to the bottom of the caste heap after emancipation, and denied some of the most basic human rights, blacks 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. Blacks gave whites of all classes someone to look down upon.


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 Reverend 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-grandparents."