The story of Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter of once avowed segregationist U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond by the black maid who worked for the family, is more curiosity than revelation to most who’ve paid attention to America’s history. Hypocrisy was a constant companion of race relations in this country during Thurmond’s lifetime – hypocrisy that Thurmond embraced through anti-black words and actions in much of his public life.
Thurmond, whose political fame and notoriety was built on racist comments and ideology, and his daughter kept a secret until six months after he died in 2003, have become an illuminating example of that hypocrisy.
His most remembered line when he ran for president as a segregationist for the Dixiecrat Party in 1948 pledged that “all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our theatres, our swimming pools, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”
That same year, Carrie Butler, the black mother of his secret daughter, died at age 38. Six years earlier, when Essie Mae was 16, the same age that Butler was when she gave birth to Thurmond’s child, daughter met father for the first time. Her mother took her to meet him at a law office in his hometown of Edgefield, S.C.
Washington-Williams died Monday in a nursing home near Columbia at age 87. Raised by her aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania, she described that first meeting in her 2005 autobiography, “Dear Senator: A Memoir by The Daughter of Strom Thurmond.”
“He never called my mother by her name. He didn’t verbally acknowledge that I was his child. 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.”
Still, father and daughter developed a bond that lasted throughout his life. Even as he became a high-profile vocal segregationist as an S.C. legislator, judge, governor and presidential candidate and U.S. senator, he financially supported Washington-Williams and kept in contact with her. He provided money for her to attend South Carolina State College, and showed up unannounced on campus while governor.
She recounts that meeting in her book as well. It was a month after his losing Dixiecrat campaign for president. The college president’s office located her, and she met with him. It was then that she told him her mother had died: “He didn’t cry,” she wrote, “but tears filled his eyes. ... After a long pause, he began to talk again. ‘Nobody told me.’... I truly cared for that woman. She was a wonderful person.”
The true relationship between Butler and Thurmond may never be known. They had a lopsided power relationship – she was a poor black teen who worked for his family, and was dependent on that family, and by extension him, for her livelihood. That kind of relationship can lead to coercion, which makes a truly consensual relationship difficult to imagine. And even if it was consensual, a man in his 20s having sex with a 16-year-old today would be considered statutory rape.
Yet, Thurmond’s unguarded words hint at the conflicting emotions at play in relationships between blacks and whites during slavery and segregation in America. Affection, if not love, sometimes warred with hate speech and acts. Prejudice and discrimination kept many whites imprisoned as it kept many blacks enslaved.
History, of course, shows the artificiality of such racial constructs. Blacks comingled with whites – without blacks’ consent most of the time to be sure – since their arrival on America’s shores as slaves. In the 1850 Census, that comingling was documented by the government for the first time when data on mulattoes were required. By 1860, census reports showed that 39 percent of freedmen in Southern cities were labeled mulattoes – defined as having one white parent or sometimes grandparent.
Rumors that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his black slave Sally Hemings began in 1802 during his first term as the nation’s third president. Some researchers now say Jefferson’s brother fathered Hemings’ children.
And, spoiler alert, the kicker at the end of Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Lincoln,” highlights a rumored liaison that another historical figure had with a black woman. Thaddeus Stevens, whose help was critical in passing the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, was said to have had a relationship with his housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, who was a mulatto or quadroon and looked white.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams said she felt “freed” after she came forth to acknowledge her parentage. But in 2013, America is still struggling to come to terms with and accept its racial past. On race issues, many Americans remain imprisoned by prejudices and hate. Freedom on that score is still elusive.