The biracial daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond more than once confronted her father over his racist politics, but cherished their relationship and ignored pleas from her...
WASHINGTON The biracial daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond more than once confronted her father over his racist politics, but cherished their relationship and ignored pleas from her family that she expose her parentage.
“For all his bluster, for all his racist campaign posturing, I somehow couldn’t dislike him the way I wanted to,” writes Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 79, in “Dear Senator,” an autobiography to be released next month.
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The daughter of the longtime champion of segregation and his family’s black maid has refrained from speaking publicly since she revealed the secret of her birth. That was a year ago, six months after Thurmond’s death.
“Dear Senator,” titled after the way she addressed her letters to Thurmond, answers many of the questions that have swirled around a relationship kept secret for nearly eight decades.
Years could go by between meetings, Washington-Williams writes, but she and Thurmond saw each other at least a dozen times over his lifetime in Philadelphia when he returned from World War II; at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, the black college he paid for her to attend; and in his Senate office in Washington, D.C., where she was introduced as a family friend.
It bothered her that he rarely touched her beyond a handshake, and that even privately he only a few times called her “daughter.”
“How does it feel to be the daughter of the governor?” Thurmond asked her on a visit to her university.
Thurmond, credited with improving education for blacks in South Carolina and speaking out against lynching while he was governor, assumed a different mantle as a national politician.
In 1948, he ran for president on the segregationist States Rights ticket. He mounted the longest filibuster in Senate history with his stand against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Thurmond was a Democrat until he switched to the Republican Party in 1964.
He once said: “There’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.”
“I wasn’t sure if this was my father talking or the ghost of Adolf Hitler,” Washington-Williams writes.
She brought up the hypocrisy between his private and public relationship with blacks at least once. In 1964, then the wife of a civil-rights lawyer and the mother of four children, Washington-Williams stopped by Thurmond’s Senate office.
“If you mean what you say,” she stammered, “how could you … how could you … love … my mother?”
“He didn’t speak for the longest time,” she writes. “He just looked like the wind had been punched out of him. It was a question he never expected to be called upon to answer. And he didn’t. He kept silent.”
The author, a retired Los Angeles schoolteacher, describes a covert romance between Thurmond and her mother, Carrie Butler, who were 23 and 15, respectively, when they met.
Taken from South Carolina to be raised by Butler’s sister in the Pennsylvania steel town of Coatesville, Washington-Williams didn’t learn her mother’s identity until she was 13.
When Washington-Williams was 16 and for the first time visiting her family in Edgefield, S.C., Butler brought her to the law office of attorney Strom Thurmond. She introduced him as her father.
Washington-Williams had no idea that her father was white, not to mention one of the most powerful men in town.
She was stunned and speechless, but noticed that Thurmond’s hand lingered on Carrie Butler’s.
“They were in love, clearly in love,” she writes.
Washington-Williams’ husband, and later her children, pressured her to reveal Thurmond’s paternity.
(Three of Washington-Williams’ four children Thurmond and Butler’s grandchildren live in Washington state: Monica Williams-Hudgens, 47, an advocate for victims of domestic violence who lives in Silverdale, Kitsap County, and works in Seattle; Dr. Ronald Williams, 53, an emergency-room doctor in Chehalis; Julius Thomas Williams III, 54, a Seattle Metro bus driver; and Wanda Terry, 49, a Los Angeles information-technology entrepreneur. There also are 13 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.)
Washington-Williams could strike a blow, they said, against those who spoke and voted against racial equality. Julius Williams called the thousands of dollars that Thurmond had given his wife over the years “hush money.”
But Washington-Williams wouldn’t talk until Thurmond died.
She writes that the money was the only way he knew how to express affection toward her.
“It’s not that Strom Thurmond ever swore me to secrecy. He never swore me to anything. He trusted me, and I respected him, and we loved each other in our deeply repressed ways, and that was our social contract.”
Washington-Williams writes that she was “finally free” when she went public last year.
Since then, and based on her patrimony, she has applied for membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She’s also trying to claim some of Thurmond’s estate.
Valued at $1.48 million, most of it was left to Thurmond’s three surviving white children, and none to Washington-Williams.
Her autobiography, co-authored by William Stadiem, will be released next month by ReganBooks.