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.
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 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 Williams on campus to use as political ammunition against Thurmond, a noted segregationist who filibustered the Civil Rights Act and ran for President on the Segregationist ticket.
But 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.
Now that Mrs. Essie Mae has passed on there will be a few days of dissecting their relationship again and reminding the public that the Senator was ashamed of his daughter. But this was not the case.
In a conversation I had with Mrs. Williams years ago, she told me how they finally bonded before his death in 2003. Mrs. Williams’ passing is more about her legacy with her children, grandchildren, and her larger community, than about her being the mixed-race child of legendary South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. While the media continue making the connection between the two, let us also resolve to tell the public about her life beyond her famous father: Essie Mae Williams was a well-educated leader, organizer, philanthropist, strategist, and servant of God her entire life.
Many of us were aware of her struggles with illness for a long time. Finally, she has found peace, and her legacy will endure through 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 certain basic and essential facts about her identity, it seems that Williams at the time only wished to be honest with herself—and with society, for that matter—about who she was.
Senator Paul Thurmond, Essie Mae's younger brother requested yesterday 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 healing of all wounds and acceptance of Essie Mae and her children as the continuing legacy of former U.S Senator James Strom Thurmond.
The now deceased Senator Thurmond and Essie Mae's story is not just their own, but part of our history. Now that Thurmond and his daughter have passed into the arms of their shared, Eternal Father, history deserves a full and accurate accounting of their warm and fatherly relationship before the final curtain was drawn.