Finding Strom in the family tree

December 22, 2003|By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

THE SKELETON that rattled in the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's closet when Essie Mae Washington-Williams revealed that she's his daughter also rattled for me. My two granddaughters are her great-granddaughters. That means that they are Mr. Thurmond's great-great-granddaughters. This was not really news to me.

At family functions, Mr. Thurmond's relationship with Ms. Washington-Williams was the subject of much gossip and speculation. That's always where it ended, since she would not utter a word one way or another on the subject.

I always thought, though, that if Mr. Thurmond was indeed my granddaughter's great-great-grandfather this would have to be one for Ripley's Believe it or Not. We could not be further apart on the political, racial and social poles. He was a wealthy, white, Southern icon who typified everything wrong about white resistance to civil rights. He's the man who did more than any other Southern politician to resuscitate a moribund Republican Party in the South and transform it into a dominant conservative force in national politics.

Mr. Thurmond's one-man crusade for states' rights and against federal intrusion in the South's racial business stoked white fury against the national Democrats in the 1960s. In the eyes of many white Southerners, the Democratic Party became the hated symbol of integration and civil rights, and Mr. Thurmond had much to do with that.

Despite much talk that Mr. Thurmond did a racial mea culpa in the latter days of his political reign, he still remained a die-hard conservative on defense and in opposing government social programs. In his final campaign, for his eighth Senate term in 1996, he ranted against the wrongs of liberalism.

I, on the other hand, am a Northern-born African-American writer and progressive political activist. I have been involved in and supportive of peace and civil rights causes for three decades.

But the possible family connection with Mr. Thurmond piqued my curiosity. I checked out a few stories on Web sites that discussed the relationship between Mr. Thurmond and Ms. Washington-Williams. The writers told of the secret payoffs, the visits to her all-black college where he purportedly footed the bill, and the fact that he never publicly denied that she was his daughter.

I knew that this type of interracial sexual paternalistic relationship was not particularly unusual in the South. It's well-known or strongly suspected that a slew of prominent, wealthy and politically connected Southern slave masters, and that almost certainly included Thomas Jefferson, kept black mistresses, fathered black children and even supported them.

The sexual hijinks between men who were wealthy and prominent and regarded as pillars of Southern society and black women didn't end with slavery. Some of them voluntarily contributed to their children's upkeep.

Even though Ms. Washington-Williams has been roundly criticized by some blacks for not speaking out when Mr. Thurmond was alive and exposing him as a racial and moral hypocrite, one of the reasons that she dutifully kept her silence about her father for six decades was because he did provide financial support, and in an odd sort of way was a caring father.

However, when the truth finally came out, I wondered what I would tell my granddaughters. The girls are ages 8 and 2, and I certainly didn't want to further confuse them or, worse, create any bitterness in them about him. Segregation, states' rights and conservatism, the things that Mr. Thurmond mightily championed, are alien concepts to them. But they still needed to know the truth about their heritage.

I didn't have to wait long for the question to come up.

When the story broke nationally about Mr. Thurmond and Ms. Washington-Williams, my oldest granddaughter asked me about him. I fudged badly, bit my tongue and merely told her that he was an important Southern senator.

In time, I will tell her much more about her great-great-grandfather's political legacy and the racially indelible stamp that he put on the nation.

I'm also confident that when she feels the time is right and the girls can understand, Ms. Washington-Williams will also sit down with them and candidly tell them who and what their great-great-grandfather was and what he meant to her and what he means to them.

Ms. Washington-Williams did a great service by boldly coming forth with the truth about a much-hidden and much-denied interracial sexual past that's still such an intimate and enduring part of our nation's heritage. And whether I welcome it or not, that heritage is now a lasting part of my family's heritage, too.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press, 1998). He lives in Inglewood, Calif.

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