Essie Mae Washington-Williams: Daughter of controversial senator


Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who died on 3 February at the age of 87, was the mixed-race daughter of the controversial US politician Strom Thurmond who kept her parentage secret for more than 70 years to avoid damaging his political career.

She was the daughter of Senator Thurmond and his family's black maid; the identity of her famous father was rumoured for decades in political circles and the black community. But not until after his death in 2003 at the age of 100 did Washington-Williams come forward and say her father was the white man who ran for president on a segregationist platform and served in the US Senate for more than 47 years. "I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I am completely free," she said at a news conference revealing her secret.

She was born in 1925 after Thurmond, then 22, had an affair with a 16-year-old black maid who worked in his family's home in Edgefield, South Carolina. She spent years as a schoolteacher in Los Angeles, keeping in touch with her famous father. While he never publicly acknowledged his daughter, his family accepted her claim after she came forward.

Washington-Williams was raised by Mary and John Washington in Pennsylvania. Her world changed when she was 13 years old, when Mary Washington's sister, Carrie Butler, told her that she was in fact her mother. Washington-Williams met Thurmond for the first time a few years later in a law office in his home town of Edgefield.

"He never called my mother by her name. He didn't verbally acknowledge that I was his child," she wrote in her 2005 autobiography, Dear Senator: A Memoir By The Daughter Of Strom Thurmond. "He didn't ask when I was leaving and didn't invite me to come back. It was like an audience with an important man, a job interview, but not a reunion with a father."

Thurmond supported her, paying for her to attend then-South Carolina State College, and also helped her later after she was widowed in the 1960s. "It's not that Strom Thurmond ever swore me to secrecy. He never swore me to anything," she wrote. "He trusted me, and I respected him, and we loved each other in our deeply repressed ways, and that was our social contract."

She watched from afar as Thurmond ran for president as a segregationist for the Dixiecrat Party in 1948, saying "all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the army cannot force the Negro race into our theatres, our swimming pools, our schools, our churches, our homes".

Thurmond later softened his political stance and renounced racism. But he never publicly acknowledged his oldest daughter or the active role he played in her life.