Strom Thurmond’s biracial daughter sheds life of secrecy

The daughter grew up in a house without indoor plumbing, rode the back of the bus and attended a college for blacks only.

The father was raised in a stately home with black servants — one of them her mother — and later became South Carolina’s governor and ran for president, espousing racial segregation.

One family, two Americas.

The story of Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the biracial daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, reveals how two people, bound by blood and duty, lived separate, unequal lives. They developed a limited relationship that, despite the anguish it caused her, she kept secret his entire life.

“I did love my father. He was very good to us,” Washington-Williams, 79, says in an interview to promote today’s release of her autobiography, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond.

She first disclosed that he was her father to The Washington Post in December 2003, six months after he died. The Thurmond family has since acknowledged her as his daughter, and her name was added last year to a Thurmond monument on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, S.C., alongside the names of his white children.

The book, as well as interviews with her and with attorneys involved, offer new details:

* She says her parents had a lengthy, forbidden romance, and she was “speechless” when she learned at age 16 that a rich, white lawyer was her father.

* She says she saw her father at least 60 times over six decades. “Wherever he was, I saw him.” Yet, she writes, despite the hugs and kisses, the phone calls, the Father’s Day cards, the trip souvenirs and the graduation presents, they never shared a meal or said “I love you” to each other.

* She might challenge his estate, officially valued at $1.48 million, if evidence of fraud is found, says her attorney, Frank K. Wheaton. She is not named in his will. Wheaton says she has yet to receive “one thin dime” even though the Thurmond family attorney, J. Mark Taylor, suggested she would be compensated if she did not file a formal challenge.

Taylor says the estate is still open, but “it can now be closed.” He refused to answer other questions.

“I never asked for any money,” Washington-Williams says. She received an advance in the “high six figures” for her book, according to Wheaton, and also sold the movie rights to CBS for a similar amount. A two-hour TV movie is in the works, but no actress has been chosen yet to play her.

“I have a good retirement,” says Washington-Williams, a widow who taught English as a second language and worked as a guidance counselor during a 27-year career in the Los Angeles school system. “I feel satisfied.”

Romance or rape?

The book already has been criticized for painting an overly rosy portrait of Thurmond. In a review this week, history professor Adele Logan Alexander says it never questions whether Thurmond’s encounters with the mother constituted statutory rape. The book, Alexander says, shows no concern for his “inappropriate, abusive appropriation” of a young maid.

Washington-Williams says she has no “firm evidence” of a lengthy romance between her parents. Her father was 23 and her mother 15 when their relationship began. But she says they showed subtle physical affection for each other, and her mother always asked about him.

In the memoir, she suggests her parents had trysts spanning two decades. She writes that her mother told her she loved Thurmond and that he cared for her.

“He was known for having an eye for the ladies, and he was handsome. . . . He was always running in the road, half naked, at the crack of dawn, because that was part of his health routine. I couldn’t help but notice,” she quotes her mother as saying. After his older brother flirted with her, the mother said Thurmond got jealous, Washington-Williams writes.

When Washington-Williams told Thurmond her mother had died, at age 38 of renal failure in the poverty ward of a Philadelphia hospital, “he didn’t cry but tears filled his eyes,” she writes. “My God, what a terrible thing,” he said. “I truly cared for that woman.”

Yet she also writes that none of her four children, who learned as teenagers that Thurmond was their grandfather, initially believed he loved their grandmother. “You’re fooling yourself, Mom,” said her daughter Monica. “I’m sure he took advantage of her.”

Her son, Ronald, said his grandmother was probably scared to death of him and had no choice but to submit to his sexual advances.

Marilyn Thompson, a newspaper editor who tracked Washington-Williams for two decades and broke The Washington Post story, says she finds it difficult to believe Thurmond had “any enduring love” for the mother. In the 1920s in Edgefield, S.C., the senator’s hometown, Thompson says white men commonly slept with young black women. “That was how they got their sexual education,” she says.

Washington-Williams is “an incredibly complicated person,” says Thompson, who has been digging through archives for an updated Thurmond biography due this spring.

“There’s all sorts of evidence he treated her very badly,” she says. For example, his office responded to a personal Christmas card she had sent with a letter addressed to “Mr. Essie Williams.”

In the memoir, Washington-Williams describes how she was desperate for her father’s affection and hurt by his segregating her from his public life. It recounts how she wanted to be invited to his two weddings, meet her four white half-siblings — all more than a generation younger than she — and put her arms around him when one of his daughters, Nancy Moore, was killed by a drunken driver.

“As much as I wanted to ‘belong’ to him, I never felt like a daughter, only an accident,” she writes. “Something, some strong feeling was definitely there. . . . That was what was drawing him to me, and me to him. But that feeling was all bottled up. We both felt it, from opposite sides of an invisible wall. It was segregated love.”

Thurmond supported Washington-Williams financially throughout her life and, she says, also gave her mother money. The envelopes he delivered, either personally or later through a nephew, contained thousands of dollars in cash. She declines to give a total but says he was quite generous. Her husband called the payments “hush money” and urged her not to take them.

She says Thurmond didn’t buy her silence: “I didn’t have any reason to go public.” When he opposed civil rights for blacks, she says, “I didn’t want people to know he was my father.” Later, after he softened his stance on race, she kept quiet out of respect and honor.

“He never said: ‘Don’t talk about our relationship.’ I just didn’t do it,” says Washington-Williams, a great-grandmother. “I can talk about it now, because there’s no danger of it hurting anybody.”

Growing up black and proud

“Hers is an age-old story of the South,” says Dan Carter, a historian at the University of South Carolina, referring to the biracial children rejected by white parents, typically fathers. He says such tales are among the most painful legacies of segregation.

Washington-Williams grew up in Coatesville, a steel town 40 miles from Philadelphia, thinking she was the daughter of Mary and John Henry Washington. She attended mostly integrated schools and earned good grades.

When she was 13, she learned that the woman she assumed was her Aunt Carrie was really her biological mother. Carrie was only 16 when Washington-Williams was born. She gave the baby to her older sister Mary, who adopted her.

When Washington-Williams was 16, she learned her family’s other big secret. After attending a family funeral in Edgefield, Carrie took her to meet her father. “She has my sister Gertrude’s cheekbones,” Thurmond said to Carrie. “You have a lovely daughter.”

“It was a kind thought, but inside it hurt me,” Washington-Williams writes. “I would have liked him to say, ‘We have a lovely daughter.’ . . . He never called my mother by her first name. He didn’t verbally acknowledge that I was his child. It was like an audience with an important man, a job interview, but not a reunion with a father.”

His sister gave them an envelope with $200. “I had never seen so much money,” she writes.

She didn’t see her father for another three years. In 1944, while on war leave, he met her and her Aunt Mary in Philadelphia. He urged her to watch her diet, bragged about his fitness, gave her a bone-crushing handshake and sent her off with another $200.

He arranged for her to attend the segregated South Carolina State College, where he repeatedly visited her in the university president’s office. By then, 1947, he was the governor, and his stops on campus prompted rumors about a biracial child.

Washington-Williams writes his visits “thrilled” her, because they took courage and proved he cared. Still, she adds: “It all added up to one big lecture, no true love or true confessions, which was what I would have savored. . . . Diet was as personal as it got.”

After his first marriage in 1947 — he was 47, his bride was 21 — Thurmond changed politically. Once a progressive Democrat, he became a Dixiecrat who campaigned as a segregationist for the White House against Harry Truman. “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the army cannot force the Negro race into our theaters, our swimming pools, our churches, our homes,” he said in a speech.

After he lost his 1948 presidential bid, she confronted him about the injustice of segregation. “It’s the South, Essie Mae,” he replied. “It’s the culture here. It’s the custom. . . . You can’t change the South.”

While in college, she married Julius Williams, who became a civil rights attorney. The couple watched with dismay as her father, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954, resisted efforts to secure voting rights for blacks. At times, she writes, she felt “deeply embarrassed” for Thurmond. “Rather than hate him, I pitied him.”

For decades, she regularly visited him on Capitol Hill. He increased his financial support after her husband died of a heart attack, leaving her a widow at age 39 with four school-age children.

Confronting the past

In an interview, Washington-Williams says her relationship with her father caused her less pain than the memoir suggests. “I wasn’t in turmoil,” she says, because she accepted as a political necessity her father’s refusal to acknowledge her publicly. She says the memoir, which features lengthy conversations she had with Thurmond, is partly the interpretation of her co-author, William Stadiem.

Stadiem, the author of best sellers on Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, says it was difficult for her to open up. He says he would “cross-examine” her after interviewing her children, college classmates, friends and hundreds of people in South Carolina. Stadiem says that after the Thurmond family acknowledged her in 2003, she became less candid because she didn’t want to say anything to offend her half-siblings or stepmother. “She wants very much to be accepted by her newly discovered white family,” he adds.

Her daughter, Wanda Terry, says Thurmond’s widow, Nancy, whom he married when he was 66 and she was 21, has met her mom twice. Thurmond’s two white sons have also met her. “I don’t have any resentment toward them for not coming forward earlier,” Terry says. “It’s a struggle on both sides. Out of the blue, we surface. They’re being challenged, too.”

Taylor, the Thurmond family lawyer, says the family is giving no interviews. Nancy Thurmond, the senator’s widow, and her older son, Strom Thurmond Jr., 32, did not respond to repeated phone calls.

Washington-Williams says she wishes Thurmond had publicly acknowledged her after he retired from the Senate in January 2003. “That would have made me even prouder,” she says, but she refrains from criticizing him.

She says she was surprised to find that her father kept so much of their correspondence, now archived at Clemson University. She adds: “Maybe that was his way of letting people know.”