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).
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 local South Carolina newspaper announced that Thurmond had fathered a "colored offspring." By 1992, The Washington Post was referring to Williams as Thurmond's "supposed daughter."
During the Senator’s lifetime, Thurmond's family and staffers repeatedly denied the claim, describing Williams as merely a friend of the family. Through my long working relationship with the Senator, I knew otherwise.
I began working for Senator Thurmond in 1978; our relationship went far back. Nearly 20 years later, at a 1996 Washington Urban League ceremony, the Senator and I were honored for our work in promoting peace and good will between black and white Americans. Backstage, he 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," cackled Thurmond, winking salaciously.
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 Williams to attend the college while he was governor. (Thurmond caused quite a stir when his official car rolled onto the campus for a visit.)
"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.
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