If you think about it, there should be nothing particularly surprising about the discovery that one of Strom Thurmond's relatives once owned...

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WASHINGTON — If you think about it, there should be nothing particularly surprising about the discovery that one of Strom Thurmond’s relatives once owned the Rev. Al Sharpton’s great-grandfather. That’s how slavery worked — human beings owning other human beings, buying them and selling them, often passing them down to the next generation like sentient family heirlooms. Haven’t we already hashed and rehashed that whole sad story?

Actually, no.

What makes the story that broke over the weekend so compelling is that we know the charismatic activist Sharpton and we knew the one-time segregationist Thurmond. The ancestors of such public figures can’t be dismissed as mere historical abstractions. They were real, flesh-and-blood men and women who played their roles, voluntarily or not, in the horrific institution that so indelibly stained this nation.

Because we know so little about slavery at the individual level, we really don’t know slavery at all.

“I almost fell off the chair,” Sharpton told me by phone Monday, describing the moment when a team of expert genealogists, working with the New York Daily News for a Black History Month project, met him at the studio where he does his radio talk show and told him of his link with Thurmond.

As Sharpton tells it, the researchers had just informed him that his great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton Sr., once lived near Edgefield, S.C. Previously, he had never been able to trace that side of his family back further than the grocery store his grandfather, Coleman Sharpton Jr., had owned and run in Florida. Sharpton said he thought he knew where the genealogists were headed — Sharpton once was entertainer James Brown’s road manager, and Brown was from near Edgefield, so Sharpton thought he was about to be told that he and the late Godfather of Soul were related.

When the researchers from the Web site Ancestry.com dropped the Thurmond bomb, the normally voluble Sharpton could only take stock in disbelief: “Strom Thurmond’s family owned my family,” he said, according to the Daily News.

Sharpton learned for the first time that his name came from Alexander Sharpton, a prosperous Edgefield County slave owner. Nothing unusual there — that’s the way we got our surnames, from our ancestors’ owners — but still a shock when a sweeping historical fact is made personal.

“Just now, I was going through the airport in Miami and a guy saw me and asked for an autograph, and I stopped to give it to him, and it hit me,” Sharpton said. “I was writing my name because my great-grandfather was owned by a Sharpton. Every time I look at my name, I’m looking at the contract that America provided for us.”

Alexander Sharpton’s son Jefferson married a woman named Julia Ann Thurmond, who turns out to have been Strom’s first cousin twice removed, according to the genealogists. When Jefferson died broke in 1860, patriarch Alexander transferred ownership of “Coleman, age 25 years, Biddy (female) age 22 years old, Harrison aged about 4 years and Bachus aged about 8 years” to Jefferson’s four children, along with “the future increase of the said female slave.”

The four slaves were then sent temporarily to the custody of another relative in Florida, where their labor was to be used to pay off Jefferson’s debts. The Civil War intervened, and after emancipation Coleman worked as a wood hauler. His son, Coleman Jr. — Sharpton’s grandfather — not only owned the grocery store in Liberty County, Fla., but also was a preacher, which Sharpton had not known.

I tell the Sharpton family story in some detail because the rest of us have similar family sagas, but few can trace them all the way back to a specific owner or plantation. The point is not to wallow in slavery, but to know it so that we can fully comprehend its lessons. For Sharpton, learning his family history was a reminder of unspeakable cruelty and monumental injustice — but also a personal challenge.

“I think of my grandfather, the son of a slave, the son of a man who was bought and sold in that horrific manner, and my grandfather opened up a grocery store and took care of his family and raised 17 children,” Sharpton said.

“That’s what his generation did. Now what are we going to do? Are we a generation that wants to be defined by nothing more than using the N-word and having all this gangster attitude? This information doesn’t just put the responsibility on society, it puts the responsibility on me. On us.”

Eugene Robinson’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com