Half-black daughter calls Thurmond caring

Woman born to his maid says she kept secret for white senator's sake

December 18, 2003|By Russell Working | Russell Working,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

COLUMBIA, S.C. - The daughter of a one-time segregationist senator - born to his 16-year-old African-American maid when he was 22 - claimed her place among his children and in the nation's troubled history of race yesterday.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 78, said she decided to speak about being the daughter of Sen. Strom Thurmond, who died this year at age 100, not out of bitterness but to help her children understand their past.

"In fact, there is a great sense of peace that has come over me in the past year," she said at a news conference.

"Once I decided I would no longer harbor such a great secret that many others knew, I feel as though a tremendous weight has been lifted. I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I feel completely free."

Thurmond conducted a 24-hour filibuster in the Senate against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 in an attempt to spare the South from "mongrelization." He ran for president in 1948 on a third-party States' Rights, or Dixiecrat, ticket, winning four Southern states.

But after blacks were guaranteed the right to vote, he came to support civil rights laws.

Williams and others in this Southern capital were reluctant to condemn her father as a hypocrite. People interviewed on the streets recounted positive stories, such as Thurmond helping a father get his tardy pension payments or sending a letter of condolence when a 2-year-old child died.

Williams recalled a caring father who visited her, gave her money and arranged for her to attend college, despite his segregationist views. She said she kept silent to protect him but decided to speak now to end "all the speculation."

"Throughout his life and mine, we respected each other," she said. "I never wanted to do anything to harm him."

This week, the late senator's son, U.S. Atty. Strom Thurmond Jr., said he and his family would like to meet and get to know his half-sister. Williams, a retired teacher living in Los Angeles, said she would like to meet Thurmond's other children.

Downtown Columbia is a mix of modern buildings and abandoned lunch counters and theaters that harken back to an age when a white senator had to fear for his political life if he didn't hush up the existence of a daughter born to a black maid. But this week Williams' story has dominated newspapers and airwaves here.

Beside the domed capitol stands a bronze statue of Thurmond, "Statesman-Soldier-Educator." Engraved in the pedestal is a list of the late politician's achievements, along with the words, "The father of four children." But since the Williams story broke, someone with a felt pen has corrected the number to read "five."

There are reminders of the old segregationist South in a city where the capitol grounds are decorated with a Confederate flag. But times have changed in the more than 75 years since Thurmond's daughter was born to a maid named Carrie Butler.

"It's always been rumored and it's finally come out," said Karen Shealy, 49, a nurse who lives in Columbia. "Things like that happened in the South. You just didn't talk about it."

Williams was raised by an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania and didn't meet her father until she was a teen-ager visiting Edgefield, N.C. When she met Thurmond, then a lawyer, in his office, her aunt said, "This is your father."

For more than 50 years, rumors have circulated around the state, dating to when then-Gov. Thurmond visited his daughter while she was a student at South Carolina State College, a college for blacks, during the 1940s.

Students used to talk whenever Thurmond's limousine would stop, recalled Marianna White Davis, a fellow student who now is an assistant to the president at Benedict College. Williams was generous in sharing the money she got from Thurmond with poorer friends.

Robert Green, 53, a retired state worker from Columbia, said that when he was a student at South Carolina State in the 1970s, there were widespread rumors that Thurmond had once taken Williams shopping in stores where blacks weren't allowed to try on the clothes. The stores, people whispered, would shut down to accommodate the senator's daughter.

Green, who is African-American, said he, like others, isn't surprised by news of a white man with a mixed-race daughter. "My great-great-grandfather had a brother who passed for white," he said.

For her part, Williams said she didn't like her father's stand on segregation, but "there was nothing I could do about it."

Williams compared her story to reports that President Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children with a slave.

"There are many stories like Sally Hemings and mine," she said. "The unfortunate measure is that not everyone knows about these stories that helped to make America what it is today."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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