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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Babysitter Katie and Paul have terse words in the park
tvReview: The strength of the writing keeps viewers glued to their seats even when they are confronted with the hard-hitting scenes
Life and Style
Make-up artists prepare contestants for last year’s Miss World, held in Budapest
fashion
Life and Style
life
News
‘The Graduate’, starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, was directed by Nichols in his purple period
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

£27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

What are Jaden and Willow on about?

Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

Cold war

How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager