Pro-segregation Thurmond fathered mixed-race daughter

After a lifetime of silence, a retired teacher in Los Angeles has confirmed that she is the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Strom Thurmond - the former South Carolina senator who for decades led the segregationist movement in the American south.

On Wednesday, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, now 78 years old, will make an official announcement about her secret past in Columbia, the capital of her father's home state. In doing so she will confirm a story that had long swirled around Mr Thurmond, an extraordinary figure who died aged 100 last June just five months after retiring as the longest-serving senator in American history.

To the very end of his career he was as famous for his eye for the ladies as for any legislative achievement.

Until now Mrs Washington-Williams hasdenied the rumours, insisting that she and Mr Thurmond were merely "friends". Despite recent money problems - she received intermittent financial help from the former senator but declared personal bankruptcy in 2001 - she insists her motive in going public is not to seek money from the Thurmond estate. Most of Mr Thurmond's fortune has been divided between his three surviving children from his second marriage. "I want to bring closure to this," she told The Washington Post. "This is part of history."

Mrs Washington-Williams was born in October 1925, the daughter of Essie Butler, then a 16-year-old who did cleaning work at the Thurmond family home in Edgefield, South Carolina. At the time the young Strom, then 22, was a teacher and a high school sports coach.

At the age of six months, Essie Mae was taken by her aunt to live with relatives in a suburb of Philadelphia.

At 16 she met her father for the first time when she returned to Edgefield to see her mother, who was dying of an incurable kidney disease. Essie Mae's mother insisted she meet Mr Thurmond, by then a prominent local lawyer and state senator, and took Essie to see him in his office.

The meeting lasted around 20 minutes. He called her "a very lovely daughter", and Mrs Washington-Williams was equally delighted. "I was very happy. I knew I had a father somewhere, and it was wonderful to meet him," she said.

At the time Mr Thurmond was a racial progressive who favoured greater educational opportunity for black people, and who sought to prosecute whites who carried out lynchings. But in 1948 he changed political course, running for president on a "Dixiecrat" programme, backing segregation and carrying four Deep South states.

In 1957, he conducted a 24-hour filibuster, still the longest in Senate history, against a civil rights bill. And in the mid-1960s, he left the Democratic party in protest against President Lyndon Johnson's civil rights programme and became a Republican.

The secret of Mr Thurmond's liaison remained intact despite regular visits by Ms Washington-Williams to the US capital, where she met her father in his Senate office. At the end of each trip he would give her money, and in 1998 she sent him a Father's Day card, receiving a personally-signed thank-you note in return.

While Mr Thurmond was alive she denied all suggestions that the two were any more than family friends. Her motive, she told the Post, was to protect Mr Thurmond's political career and spare herself and her own four children from embarrassment. But now Mr Thurmond is dead, the story has emerged - a 20th-century equivalent of the alleged relationship between Thomas Jefferson, the third US president and author of the Declaration of Independence, and his slave girl Sally Hemmings. Mrs Washington-Williams confirmed through her lawyer at the weekend that she is prepared to take a DNA test to prove her claims.

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