Exemplary Actions From Thurmond’s Children

Friday December 19, 2003

Class acts in American public life are so rare these days, even the term itself has fallen into disuse. It’s noteworthy, therefore, to witness two examples occurring in the same issue, and coming from the same family. 

The first example comes from Ms. Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the 78-year-old African-American daughter of the late United States Senator, J. Strom Thurmond and a black South Carolina woman, Carrie Butler. There had been rumors for years in Thurmond’s home state of South Carolina that the senator had a black child out of wedlock, made all the more scandalous because Thurmond was one of the most vocal anti-black segregationists of our lifetime. During the 1990s, Ms. Washington-Williams began being identified in the press as that child. She always denied that rumor, quietly, and with dignity, explaining her visits to the senator’s Washington office by saying only that Thurmond was a good friend. 

Her recent acknowledgment of the details of her ancestry was handled with equal taste. She was not asking for money, she explained, nor trying to make some social or political point. She only wanted to tell the world who she was, something she had not been able to do for some 60 years. “Strom Thurmond was my father,” she began, in a prepared statement. “I have known this since 1941, when I was 16 years old.” She later added, “I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and I am free.” Free, presumably, from a longtime burden of secrecy. 

But equally classy was the response from the late Senator Thurmond’s white descendants. Asked if Ms. Washington-Williams’ claim was true, a spokesperson for Thurmond’s white children answered, simply, yes. “As J. Strom Thurmond has passed away and cannot speak for himself,” the family attorney said, “the Thurmond family acknowledges Ms. Essie Mae Washington-Williams’ claim to her heritage. We hope this acknowledgment will bring closure for Ms. Williams.” 

You have only to note the contrast with the sad, woeful example of the white descendants of Thomas Jefferson, who continue to roll around in the dust trying to rid themselves of the mud of history, kicking their legs in protest at the thought that they might have distant cousins who happen to be black. 

I first heard Ms. Washington-Williams’ name from a man named Lamar Dawkins, a little over 20 years ago, while we sat on top of some boxes of whiskey in the front of one of his Orangeburg, South Carolina, liquor stores. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but he confirmed that he knew that Thurmond had a black daughter. “She used to room with us while she attended South Carolina State College,” he said. Having heard the rumors many times over myself, I was skeptical. “How do you know that this was Thurmond’s daughter?” I asked him. “Because he used to visit her,” Dawkins said. 

I had been in the Deep South for more than 10 years, by then, walking in the deep faultines of the black-white racial divide and fighting in the battles to wipe out the lingering residue of slavery. Since I first started seeing Senator Thurmond on television in the 1960s—his cries against the civil rights demonstrators and his calls for the retention of segregation—I considered him an enemy of black people. I later learned that Thurmond got his political training sitting on the knee of Senator Ben “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman—an American race-terrorist by most definitions—one of the architects of Southern segregation, who once publicly boasted that white folks ran black people out of South Carolina government in the 1870s, at the end of Reconstruction, using “fraud and violence.” At the time of my conversation with Mr. Dawkins, I was part of a statewide South Carolina coalition that was conducting a spirited and vocal campaign against Senator Thurmond and his stated desire to kill the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

That Thurmond had a black daughter came as absolutely no surprise to me. Like most African-Americans, I have my own black-white stories I could tell. What surprised me about Mr. Dawkins’ revelation was that Thurmond visited her. I remember going home and sitting up, thinking, for much of the rest of the night, staring out across moonlit fields where slavery crews once labored, aware of how little I knew both about Strom Thurmond, and about the complexities of race relations in the South. 

The story that the old folks used to tell me in South Carolina was that Ben Tillman, Strom Thurmond’s political mentor, went somewhat crazy at the end of his life, spending his last days waving a wobbly cane at the stray black person passing by his front porch, screaming “Keep the niggers off the polls! Keep the niggers off the polls!” Tillman is supposed to have died that way, thrashing against long-gone black enemies who visited him at his bedside, unseen by anyone but him. 

We do not know if any similar apparitions haunted Senator Thurmond at his end. 

The Mormons believe that the actions of the living can redeem the sins of the ancestors. If that is true, then the actions of Strom Thurmond’s children—both the white and the black—must go a long way toward bringing him peace. A long way, too, towards healing the great American rift that is race.