Essie Mae Washington-Williams died over the weekend. She was the secret daughter of Strom Thurmond, the child of Thurmond and a black maid who worked in the family home. Thurmond was 22 when Essie Mae was born. She did not tell her story until he died at age 100.
I have always thought the circumstances of her birth, and the dignity of her life, spoke a profound truth about race in the South, then and now. She stayed quiet as her famous father preached segregation, even though she was the one fact that could end his career. They visited, occasionally. If she dwelled on him, she never said so. She just went on and lived her life. She said in her autobiography: “He trusted me, and I respected him, and we loved each other in our deeply repressed ways, and that was our social contract.”
There is a statue of Thurmond outside the South Carolina State House. It had the names of his four children on it. After Essie Mae came forward, the statue was changed. Now there are five.
When she came to Columbia in 2003, I went down and wrote a column about her. I went back and looked at it last night, and thought about an amazing American life. Here’s the column:
The Charlotte Observer, Dec. 18, 2003
A MYSTERY SPEAKS, AND THE NEEDLE OF HISTORY MOVES;
THURMOND WAS HER FATHER, SHE SAYS, TO AMENS IN COLUMBIA
COLUMBIA — The folks at the hotel were thinking ahead. They opened a path through the service corridor so Essie Mae Washington-Williams could dodge the crowd and slip out the back.
But when the time came, Frank Wheaton, her lawyer, said no.
“Let her have this moment,” he said. “She deserves this moment.”
And he turned her toward the front door.
It’s not often that history shows up in front of you. It’s not often that a ghost puts on a red jacket and walks into the room.
But here she was Wednesday morning. Essie Mae Washington-Williams. The daughter of the late Strom Thurmond. The answer to one of the great mysteries of the South.
She spoke for about 10 minutes in a ballroom at the Adam’s Mark hotel. She didn’t say much more than she said to The Washington Post, which told her story over the weekend. She still hasn’t provided proof that Thurmond was her father, although Thurmond’s family doesn’t dispute it.
But on Wednesday none of that mattered. The rumor was made flesh. Dozens of people showed up just to see.
They brought her Christmas presents. They lined up for her autograph. They waited more than an hour to have their picture taken with her.
“This moment speaks the truth to history,” said Marianna Davis, who went to school with Williams at S.C. State half a century ago. “White men. Black women. Children. All you’ve got to do is look at the black people in this room. Look at all the shades.”
That is just the thing about the story of Williams, and the story of the South as a whole. You can’t reduce it to black and white. The more you try to separate it out, the more it swirls together, all those shades of history.
Thurmond fathered the girl with his family’s black maid. But no one seems to know the details. Thurmond never admitted in public that he was Essie Mae’s father. But he put her through school and gave her money most of her life.
She watched as he came out for segregation, filibustered against civil rights. But she never told her story while he was alive, not while she could hurt him.
On Wednesday somebody asked if she’d seen Thurmond’s 100th birthday party last year, where his daughter Julie announced that she was pregnant with Thurmond’s “first grandchild.” At the time Williams had four grown children.
“I just smiled,” she said.
She says she’s not interested in being a part of the senator’s will. But that doesn’t mean she will do without. She said she started a book years ago, and her lawyer said publishers are lining up with offers. He described her story as “certainly a monumental epic for television or screen.”
But that is the story. This is the person.
She is 78, a retired schoolteacher, living in Los Angeles. She talks with a quaver and walks with a cane. Besides the four children, there are 13 grandkids and four great-grands to add to the Thurmond family tree.
Williams doesn’t want money from the Thurmonds. But she’d like to meet them. And she likes the idea of having her name on the Strom Thurmond monuments, the ones that list his children.
There may come a time, generations from now, when the whole notion of white people and black people are history, when we talk about them the way we now talk about the Tories and the Whigs.
It might turn out that old Strom Thurmond, without intending to, helped history turn that corner.
And it might turn out that a woman with a cane helped show the way, not black, not white, moving slow but still moving, headed for the front door.