Essie Mae Washington-Williams died this month without ever publicly being acknowledged by her father, the infamous South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. Yet, after his death in 2003, she became the embodiment of his legacy—as one of America’s greatest political hypocrites.
That a politician who had built his career on claims of Black inferiority and the condemnation of miscegenation had fathered a daughter with his family’s 16-year-old Black servant was, for some, the ultimate irony.
“If your public face is that you believe in a racially hierarchal environment in which sexual relationships between Black men and White women are forbidden but privately sexual relationships between White men and Black women are accepted it represents a great deal of hypocrisy and psychological contradiction,” said Dianne Pinderhughes, professor of Africana studies at University of Notre Dame.
“For a lot of people outside of the South, that was a surprise and a shock,” said AFRO Publisher John J. Oliver of the revelation.
For people in Edgefield, S.C., however, it was a simple matter of fact, and Washington-Williams was, perhaps, one of the worst-kept secrets of Southern political folklore.
The American South was littered with children like her, which a series of AFRO articles highlighted in 1948 when it revealed Thurmond’s other Black relatives.
At the time, then Gov. Thurmond was running for president under the Dixiecrat (States’ Rights Democratic Party) banner on a segregationist platform—the party was formed by deserters of the Democratic Party, which had, under President Harry Truman, begun to advance civil rights legislation.
Thurmond represented the “massa resistance… a powerful planter community that were strong advocates of White supremacy,” Pinderhughes said.
During his campaign, the candidate once declared that there were not enough troops in the Army to force White Southerners to “admit the (expletive) race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”But, apparently, Black women were welcome in their beds.
According to an Aug. 21, 1948 AFRO article, postal worker Robert Thurmond, of Morristown, N.J., revealed that the governor was his first cousin—his father, Thomas, was half-brother to James Thurmond, the governor’s father—and the relationship was well-known.
“I certainly do know Strom and he knows me and he knows about our relationship because we were the only Thurmonds in Edgefield,” he said. More relatives came forward.
In an Aug. 28 article, the Rev. James R. Thurmond recalled seeing the governor’s father visiting his grandfather, the blue-eyed Thomas Thurmond.
“They used to sit and eat, and talk for hours,” he said. “I remember asking my grandfather why that ‘White’ man always visit our home. My grandfather told me they were brothers.”
And there were many more Black Thurmonds littered throughout Edgefield and surrounding counties, he said, a fact well-known.
“It is an old story and ‘everybody in these parts knows it,’” the AFRO quoted Thomas Thurmond, the governor’s half-cousin, as saying.
“We wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of the Southern attitude,” said Oliver, of the newspaper’s coverage. More specifically, he added, “We wanted to highlight the inconsistency of his (Thurmond’s) political vision and his personal life… [that] this guy is a racist but he has Black relatives.”
Oliver said the article likely had some impact, particularly in the elections.
“Thurmond did not get a lot of votes because he reflected a way of life that people no longer wanted to promote,” the newspaper executive said.
Thurmond’s duplicity, as manifested by his Black daughter, was evident in other ways. Those inconsistencies—for example, his authorship of the “Southern Manifesto,” which was created to counter the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case that banned public school segregation and, later, his support of legislation to create a holiday in Dr. Martin Luther King’s honor (Blacks are a powerful voting bloc in South Carolina)—seemed to suggest that his public positions were based on political expediency, said some critics, such as former Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), who in 1966 became the first Black senator elected since Reconstruction.
In his biography, Brooke said that in January 1967, not long after his election, he went to the Senate pool and found Thurmond and several other Jim Crow defenders already swimming laps. Brooke was expecting objections to his attempt to integrate the pool. Instead, the Southern lawmakers invited him to join them.
“There was no hesitation or ill will that I could see. Yet these were men who consistently voted against legislation that would have provided equal opportunity to others of my race,” Brooke wrote. “I felt that if a senator truly believed in racial separatism I could live with that, but it was increasingly evident that some members of the Senate played on bigotry purely for political gain. They appealed to ignorance and prejudice to entrench themselves in office.”