Woman says she is daughter of Thurmond and black maid

Former teacher, 78, claims to hold irrefutable proof

December 14, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - After a lifetime of public silence, a 78-year-old Los Angeles woman is stepping forward to say she is the daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and a black woman who once worked as the Thurmond family maid.

The woman, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a retired vocational school teacher, says she has incontrovertible evidence, including personal notes and financial receipts and cashier's checks demonstrating his support for her - showing that Thurmond, once one of the nation's leading segregationists, was her father.

Thurmond, a Republican who retired last year as the nation's longest-serving senator after 48 years in office, died in June at the age of 100.

Frank K. Wheaton, an attorney representing Washington-Williams, said in an interview yesterday that she was coming forward "at the urging and encouragement of her children" to establish their family history and confirm years of speculation that Thurmond fathered a child by Carrie Butler, who was 16 years old at the time.

The story of Washington-Williams' intention to come forward at a news conference next week was first reported yesterday on the Web site of The Washington Post, which interviewed her at length. She was unavailable for comment yesterday. Members of the Thurmond family could not be reached for comment.

Wheaton said Washington-Williams does not intend to ask the Thurmond estate, valued at about $200,000, for money. He said she was only interested in an official acknowledgment from the Thurmond family or from a court that she is his daughter. Wheaton said that if members of the family were not willing to concede the point, Washington-Williams would seek confirmation through genetic comparisons.

A lawyer representing Thurmond's estate, Bentz Kirby, said family members do not expect Washington-Williams to make a claim, even if it could lead to financial reward. Under South Carolina law, Kirby said, only a spouse is automatically entitled to a share of assets.

Wheaton said that Washington-Williams, a career educator with a master's degree from the University of Southern California, wanted to wait until Thurmond died before making her claims public. "She didn't want to do anything to damage or potentially damage his political career or his family," he said.

Wheaton said Washington-Williams would not comment until Wednesday, when she intends to appear at a news conference in Columbia, S.C.

For years, Thurmond was a staunch supporter of segregation. He broke with the Democratic Party in the late 1940s to run for president in 1948 as a Dixiecrat, embracing the notion, as he said at the time, that "on the question of social intermingling of the races, our people draw the line."

Despite rumors of an illegitimate black child that shadowed Thurmond for decades, and occasional published reports that named her, he never acknowledged her as anyone more than a friend who often visited his office in Washington.

Wheaton said that "it was never a secret" to the Thurmond family and his staff that the woman who saw him nearly every year on one coast or the other was his daughter. In addition to a former wife, Nancy, Thurmond was survived by three children: J. Strom Jr., who is the U.S. attorney in South Carolina; another son, Paul; and a daughter, Julie Thurmond Whitmer.

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