updated 3/5/2007 6:07:27 PM ET 2007-03-05T23:07:27

The Rev. Al Sharpton traveled Monday to Strom Thurmond’s birthplace to visit the grave of a Thurmond relative who held one of Sharpton’s ancestors as a slave.

Sharpton’s trip to this rural town also included a visit to a cemetery where slaves are buried in graves marked only by small stones. He urged all blacks to explore their histories despite “the ugly things it might reveal.”

The civil rights leader recently learned of his family’s link to that of Thurmond, a segregationist who later softened his stance before he died in 2003. At the time, Sharpton called it “probably the most shocking thing in my life” and said he wanted a DNA test to see if their families were linked by blood.

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.

“As painful as it is, it’s good that it comes out so we can deal with it,” said Sharpton.

Phillip White, who owns the plantation-style home visited by Sharpton, said Sharpton’s great-grandfather may be buried in the nearby slave cemetery. White gave Sharpton a horseshoe he found in the slave quarters on his property.

Sharpton’s trip to trace his roots back to this rural town near the Georgia border comes after Thurmond’s biracial daughter said he “overreacted” when he learned about the link to the Thurmond family.

Last week, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 81, defended Thurmond and spoke of all the positive things he did for South Carolinians — both black and white. Her mother was a housekeeper in the home of Thurmond’s parents.

Thurmond, a 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.

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