Essie Mae Washington-Williams lived for 87 years. But, in her own words, she was never “completely free” until she could stand before the world and say out loud that Strom Thurmond, the one-time segregationist South Carolina senator, was her father. That was in 2003, after she had spent more than 70 years being denied what we all deserve – her true name and birthright. “In a way, my life began at 78, at least my life as who I really was,” Washington-Williams wrote in her life story. She has died.
Thurmond’s oldest child — born when he was a 22-year-old man and her mother, Carrie Butler, a 16-year-old black maid in his father’s house – had kept the senator’s secret, an open one rumored about but never revealed when he was alive because, she had said, “He trusted me, and I respected him.” As in the case of Thomas Jefferson, another successful southern politician who was father to black children, stories shared among African Americans were long disbelieved until they turned out to be true.
As a young woman in 1948, Washington-Williams protected her father’s career when he was making his mark as a Dixiecrat presidential candidate, a renegade from a Democratic Party inching away from segregation. He defiantly pledged then, “There’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the n—– race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.”
She kept her public silence when, in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, her father conducted a nonstop filibuster that lasted more than 24 hours, and when he continued to oppose every piece of civil rights legislation that came before him. Washington-Williams said she never wanted to harm the man she must have loved, even as he made his name and reputation hurting his own flesh-and-blood and everyone like her.
Some may see kindness, but I see cruelty in the “family” visits to his law office. “He never called my mother by her name. He didn’t verbally acknowledge that I was his child,” Washington-Williams wrote in “Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond.” He gave her money, yes, a defense I heard when the story became public.
Would that have been enough for you? I would ask right back, money changing hands behind closed doors and hidden meetings where your father never called you “daughter.”
In the tangled Thurmond family tale are echoes of the hypocrisy and lies that have historically propped up America’s racial divide, the ways so many can see the same thing differently. Where some have conjured a romance between Thurmond and the teen-aged family servant, it’s something no one can know. We can be sure that in the South Carolina of the 1920s, it was not a relationship of social equals, and only one had veto power.
Thurmond’s daughter was for years kept on the outside looking in, a pattern that mirrors the lives of African Americans, integral to the lifeblood of the country’s progress and promise, yet not always invited to sit at the family table. America’s black relations are held close when they suit a purpose — economic, cultural or social – then often pushed away, demonized or ignored when that purpose has been served.
Washington-Williams died at the start of black history month, a time set aside to make up for the months and years black contributions received little notice. It’s American history, and she was a part of it.
We now have an African American president, of a different generation than Thurmond or his daughter. It’s also a fact that in 1961, the marriage of Barack Obama’s white mother and black father would have been illegal in South Carolina and 21 other states.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams did live long enough to see Obama in the White House. Though her life reflected the connections made and missed as many Americans come together to be one people, at heart the story of Washington-Williams was her own.
In 2003, she could finally stop holding her breath and tell her truth. The Thurmond family didn’t dispute her, and her name was added to the list of children on a monument for the senator on the grounds of the South Carolina state house, joining the Confederate flag, a monument to the contributions of African Americans and statues honoring segregationists who did their worst but could not stop Washington-Williams from achieving.
Wanda Bailey, Washington-Williams’ daughter, said in The State newspaper that her mother was an inspiration. “She was there for us,” Bailey said. “She was a very giving person. She did everything she could not only for her children, but her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
In that, she proved a better person than the man who spent his own life denying her. I wonder if she was smiling a few years ago when she said she would become a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy through Thurmond’s ancestral lines.
Facing internal conflicts most could only imagine, she became a mother, wife, teacher, and a daughter that Strom Thurmond or any father could be proud of.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3