People die, but the truth lives and breathes freely on its own.
We now mourn the passing of 87-year old Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who, in December 2003, confirmed one of the oldest rumors of Southern political folklore: that she was the mixed-race daughter of former US Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC).
Washington-Williams, whose mother worked as a maid in the Thurmond family home, was long rumored to be Thurmond’s daughter. In 1968, Robert Sherrill alleged that Thurmond had fathered a mixed-race child and in 1972, the front page of a South Carolina newspaper announced that Thurmond had fathered a “colored offspring.” By 1992, The Washington Post was referring to Washington-Williams as Thurmond’s “supposed daughter.”
During the senator’s lifetime, Thurmond’s family and staffers repeatedly denied the claim. Through my long working relationship with the senator, I knew otherwise.
I began working for Senator Thurmond in 1978. Nearly 20 years later, at a 1996 Washington Urban League ceremony, the senator…leaned over to me and said, “You know, I have deep roots in the Black community…deep roots.”
His voice softened into a raspy whisper, “You’ve heard the rumors.”
“Are they just rumors, Senator?” I asked.
“I’ve had a fulfilling life,” he cackled.
The subject came up again while the senator and I were attending a South Carolina State football game in Orangeburg. He mentioned how he had arranged for Washington-Williams to attend the college while he was governor.
“When a man brings a child in the world, he should take care of that child,” he told me, and added, “she’ll never say anything and neither will you. Not while I’m alive.”
He showed me where she lived while attending S.C. State and admitted to supporting her financially. Though he didn’t say outright that she was his daughter, the senator’s remarks left little to interpret.
Then there was a private conversation we had years back. The senator had been frequently ill at the time and given to spontaneous bouts of nostalgia. He mentioned how proud he was that he was able to maintain a close relationship with Washington-Williams. Beaming with pride, he talked about how she called him and sometimes took him to task when she didn’t agree with statements he made. Perhaps he saw some of his own tenacity reflected back in her. Thurmond also mused about the disconnection between what politicians sometimes espoused publicly back during the de jure segregation era and what they did in their private lives.
This point was not lost on civil rights leaders. They collected pictures of Washington-Williams on campus to use as political ammunition against Thurmond, a noted segregationist who filibustered the Civil Rights Act.
But Washington-Williams never confirmed the rumors. For 78 years she honored the senator’s request that no one know the truth about their relationship. During his lifetime, she placed the senator’s political career ahead of any desire to be recognized.
Many of us were aware of her struggles with illness for a long time. Finally, she has found peace, and her legacy will endure with her family and the many lives she touched along the way.
Williams did not make any financial claims on the Thurmond estate. “We are not looking for money. We are merely seeking closure by way of the truth for Essie Mae Washington-Williams,” said her attorney, Frank Wheaton to the Washington Post After nearly eight decades of subverting facts about her identity, it seems that Washington-Williams wished only to be honest with herself and with society about who she was.
Senator Paul Thurmond, Essie Mae’s younger brother, recently requested that on the next available date, the South Carolina Senate adjourn in memory of his sister. His request passed unanimously. His gesture further confirms the acceptance of Essie Mae and her children as the continuing legacy of Strom Thurmond.
Armstrong Williams is a columnist and radio talk show host.