Mixed-race daughter of Strom Thurmond dies at 87

Essie May Washington's father was Strom Thurmond and her mother was the 16-year-old maid in his parents' home. Photo: Essie May Washington arriving at her news conference in 2003 AP

VIENNA, Va., February 15, 2012 — A lovely, brilliant, caring, and classy lady died at the age of 87 earlier this month, and under normal conditions, or what passes for them in our wild world, her death would probably have gone unnoticed, but for one small aspect. Essie Mae Washington-Williams was the mixed-race daughter of former Republican Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Gentleman that he was, he knew her, financed her schooling, and later in life acknowledged his paternity of her for all to see and know.

Many years ago when Thurmond was a young man of 22 living at his parents’ home place in South Carolina, he fancied the attractive young brown-skinned girl, named Carrie Butler, who at 16 was a maid in his parents’ home. It is not known how many times young Strom and even younger Carrie enjoyed each other’s company to the fullest, but the result of their relationship was a beautiful little girl named Essie Mae.

Paid for Her College

Essie May Washington’s memoir of her and her father

Essie and her father enjoyed a pleasant if reserved relationship as she grew up, going to school at South Carolina State, which he had made plans for while governor, and even visiting her on campus from time to time, where, it is said, his official state car created considerable conversation when it arrived on campus.

She visited his office in Washington later on several occasions, but it was always the well-kept secret, despite rumors as to what their relationship was, though his equally devoted staff kept the secret in a way that one has to wonder if such protection of the boss would or could exist today.

Felt his Paternity Keenly 

According to Thurmond’s long-time, good friend Armstrong Williams, Thurmond once told him, “When a man brings a child in the world, he should take care of that child,” and it had been his vow that he would take care of Essie. “She’ll never say anything,” he added to Williams,  “not while I’m alive.”

And he was correct. While rumors occasionally swirled, Essie never confirmed them. Both lived long lives, Thurmond living until 101 at his death in 2003, and Essie Mae until 87.  It was only after his death that she came forward and announced her paternity, of which she was justifiably proud. Her family knew, his family knew and now the world knew. As she once said, “He trusted me and I respected him.”

Educational Pursuits

When her husband died, Essie Washington-Williams relocated to California where she raised her four children. It was then that she was awarded a Bachelor of Arts Degree from California State College in Los Angeles, having majored in business education with a minor in English. Not content with this accomplishment, two years later saw her receiving a Master of Science Degree in Education from the University of Southern California.

She used her degrees when she taught a variety of subjects in business education in the parochial school system of Los Angeles, before becoming part of the Abram Friedman Occupational Center, where she continued to teach business education for seventeen years. Finally in 1977, she put down her teacher’s ruler and retired.

All this time, she was active in her church, teaching Sunday school, being a lay reader and serving on the Child Care Board.

Wanted to Pursue her Heritage

Aware of Thurmond’s interest in his heritage as the grandson of a Confederate soldier and his membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, she shocked still more people by saying that she wished to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which requires that a woman be descended from a Confederate soldier or sailor. She said she could use the same genealogical line used by Thurmond himself, when he joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization.

Essie May Washington at her father’s monument  AP

Her younger brother, state Sen. Paul Thurmond, made the formal request that as soon as possible that the South Carolina State Senate would adjourn in memory of Essie Mae, a request that received a unanimous vote for passage.

The monument to Sen. Thurmond on the State Capital grounds has added her name to it, forever assuring that she is recognized as the eldest of his children. Essie is survived by a lovely daughter, Wanda, and a son for whom Thurmond wrote a letter of recommendation to medical school.

She was an educated lady, who received her bachelor’s degree from University of South Carolina, as well as an honorary Doctorate from South Carolina State University, her alma mater.  Following her public acknowledgement as the daughter of the late strongly segregationist senator, she wrote her story in the book, “Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond,” published in 2005. It is a telling book in many ways, revealing the depth of caring between father and daughter, albeit in a strained and strange way.

Legacy of Loving Family

Besides her children, Dr. Ronald James Williams and daughters Wanda Williams Bailey and Monica Williams Hudgens, this fascinating lady also had fourteen grandchildren, fifteen great-grandchildren, and of course her half-brothers, James S. Thurmond, Jr. and Paul Thurmond as well as a half-sister, Juliana Witman. One son preceded her in death, Julius Thomas Williams, III, named for his father.

While many will consider her death as the ultimate fruit of an unfortunate liaison between a young white man of power and a younger black teenager unable to refuse, the stronger tale seems to be that of a young man, who made a mistake but who did his best through his life to atone for it. In the end, he probably became a better and more caring father than many of those who find it easy to ignore and abandon their progeny every day of the year.

Essie always had said she had no interest in any financial claim to the Thurmond estate, that she merely wanted to be acknowledged publicly as his daughter and she saw that happen. As she so sagely put it, “I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I am completely free.”  

God bless you, Essie, and rest in peace.

Follow the column on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email it’s MBoltz2846@aol.com

Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.


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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."

 

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