Essie Mae Washington-Williams died Monday of natural causes. She was the illegitimate daughter of a 22-year old Strom Thurmond and his 16-year old black maid. She kept it a secret for 70 years to not damage his image.
Strom Thurmond ran as a segregationist. He was a Democrat until 1964. In that year, he married his second wife, Nancy Thurmond, and became a Republican. Essie Mae said that his widow Nancy was “a very wonderful person” and that Strom Thurmond Jr is “very caring and interested in what’s going on with me.”
She was raised by her mother’s sister and husband, Mary and John Washington. When she was 13, her mother (sister to Mary) Carrie Butler, told her she was her mother. In 1941, when she was 16, her mother told her she was taking her to meet her father.
Essie Mae was surprised to find out he was white. He told her “Well, you look like one of my sisters. You’ve got those cheekbones like our family.” That’s as much acknowledgement as she would ever receive.
Thurmond always sent her money, encouraged her to attend an all-black college and visited her there regularly. He paid for her college education.
Thurmond was a horrid segregationist and when she asked him why, he told her that’s the way things were then. He refused to discuss segregation with her.
He changed as times changed however. [Expediency?]
As Governor of South Carolina, he was a staunch Jim Crow defender. He was vehemently opposed to Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces and formed his own party, the State’s Rights Party otherwise known as the Dixiecrats.
In 1954, when segregation was outlawed in Brown vs. Board of Education, he wrote the “Southern Manifesto” pledging massive resistance to it. He was subsequently elected to the senate and remained as the longest reigning senator. He ran for president as well.
He spent years blocking the 1957 Civil Rights Act while serving as a Democrat.
After becoming a Republican, he worked on bringing the South into a cohesive Republican party. He backed a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr and integrated his staff.
In 2003, Strom Thurmond died at age 100. It was then that Essie Mae’s daughter convinced her to come forward.
She did at a news conference, saying, “I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I am completely free.”
The Thurmond family acknowledged that she was his daughter and said through a family lawyer, “We hope this acknowledgment will bring closure for Ms. Williams.”
She said her life began at 78 when she lived as who she really was. It was like a “grand opening” she said.
Thurmond never publicly acknowledged her. He never asked her to keep their relationship a secret but they loved each other and she chose to keep the information private.
Essie Mae was a retired LA school teacher and administrator.
Thurmond was the “great” man (sarcasm here), the senator, the presidential candidate, a man of renown, another Lion of the Senate, but Essie Mae Washington-Williams was the only hero in this story.
Sad story, isn’t it?
Read more at the LA Times