Women

02.05.13

Essie Mae Washington-Williams, Black Daughter of Strom Thurmond, Dies

The woman who kept the secret of her parentage until Thurmond’s death was quintessentially American, writes John Avlon.

It’s time to say goodbye to Essie Mae: a woman the world didn’t know until she was 78, and a woman whose very existence exposed the essential hypocrisy of segregation.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who passed away on Monday, was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the archetypal Dixiecrat whose passionate defense of segregation as a state’s rights issue and a way of life led him to split from the Democratic Party and challenge Harry S. Truman for the presidency in 1948.

But while Ol’ Strom was singing from the segregationist/traditionalist hymnal—always carefully framed as a defense of “individual liberty and freedom and … the right of the people to govern themselves”—there was a secret neither his admirers nor his detractors had imagined: Thurmond had an illegitimate black child.

Essie Mae’s mother had been a 15-year old maid named Carrie Butler working in the Thurmond household when she was impregnated by a 23-year-old Strom—making statutory rape among the many legal and moral boundaries that were transgressed. The event was hushed up, complete with stipend—a decades-long hush-money pay-off merged with child support for a daughter shipped up north to live in Pennsylvania. Strom went from serving as a county education superintendent to a county attorney to a state legislator to an elected judgeship, which he resigned to fight in World War II, storming the beaches at Normandy.

As governor of South Carolina in the post-war years, Thurmond was the preeminent defender of Jim Crow. In the run up to the 1948 campaign, as Harry Truman announced the desegregation of the armed forces, Southern conservative Democrats, who were the last legacy of the Confederacy, decried the move toward liberalization. Mississippi Senator James Eastland called the Truman administration’s civil rights proposal an attempt to “secure favor from Red mongrels in the slums of the East and Middle West.”  In a fit of states’ rights pride, Strom led the charge off the Democratic convention floor to form the States Rights Party, known as the Dixiecrats.  He ended up winning a million votes and four states—making it, depressingly, one of the most electorally successful third-party candidacies in American history.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams
Washington-Williams wrote a book about her life—and her thoughts about her father—in 2005. (Lawrence Jackson/AP)

In 1954, when Essie Mae was 29, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Strom responded by writing the first draft of the “Southern Manifesto,” pledging “massive resistance” to desegregation. He was subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate, where he would become one of the longest-serving senators in U.S. history and achieve the record for the longest filibuster on record with his attempt to block the 1957 civil rights act and its threat of “mongrelization.” Only the novelist’s eye for irony amid the arc of history—captured by Ralph Ellison in his unfinished work finally published as Juneteenth—could comprehend all the deep themes at work.

During this time, Essie Mae said that she tried to speak with her father about segregation and was rebuffed—a conversation that makes you long for a transcript. She married and moved to Seattle and then to Los Angeles, where she earned a master’s degree in Education and raised four children while working as a teacher in L.A. public schools.

She made it clear that she was not after a financial stake in her father’s estate, but something far more valuable—legitimacy in the eyes of her family and history.

In 1968, Strom worked with Richard Nixon to enact the Southern Strategy, which would in time realign the solid Democratic South into the Republican column, consistent with its underlying cultural conservatism. This coalition would reach its culmination under Ronald Reagan and GOP operatives like South Carolina’s legendary Lee Atwater. Strom tried to change with the times as well, backing instead of blocking the Martin Luther King holiday and becoming an early integrator of his senate staff in a nod to “all politics is local” pragmatism. All this time, rumors persisted but paternity was denied – by Strom as well as Essie Mae.

But when Thurmond died at the age of 100, his 78-year-old illegitimate daughter finally came forward.  For true believers, her mere existence was heresy.  But the Thurmond family quietly admitted her claim of paternity.  At the time, she made it clear that she was not after a financial stake in her father’s estate, but something far more valuable—legitimacy in the eyes of her family and history.

Essie Mae ultimately wrote a book: Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond, which was nominated for a National Book Award. To some controversy, she also subsequently joined the Daughters of the Confederacy, saying: “Through my father's line, I am fortunate to trace my heritage back to the birth of our nation and beyond. On my mother's side, like most African-Americans, my history is broken by the course of human events."

She was without rancor toward her father and would not play the role of ready-made symbol – a political pawn in anyone’s game.  She was a person of mixed race heritage and, in that, quintessentially American.

The true oddity in the fullness of time might be the talismanic importance attached to the ideas of “white” and “black”—oversimplifications with vicious implications for generations of Americans, when the truth, going back to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and past, is something more complex.  

The shame of hypocrisy—backed by the political harnessing of hate— belonged to Strom Thurmond.  The vindication in history’s eyes belongs only to Essie Mae.