The senator's daughter

A white Southern senator who supported segregationist ideals for much of his life fathers a black daughter and dies without ever publicly acknowledging her existence. Even so, he cares for her, visits her and privately gives her the red-carpet treatment whenever she comes to Washington.

Interesting how the mind and heart don’t always agree.

If he were alive today, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) might have pleaded with her to stop the book deal and tour that will lead her up and down the East Coast and out to San Francisco and Los Angeles. He might have told her to keep closed a chapter in his life that could have crucified him politically had it ever become known.

Today, that chapter is alive and open for the world to read. Thurmond’s illegitimate black daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, has published a detailed account of being the daughter of a senator who hid her presence in his life for decades. Her book, fittingly, is called Dear Senator.

What was it like for Washington-Williams to learn that she had a white father? “A big surprise,” she said last week in an interview with The Hill.

In a sweet voice free of the gravely nature of age, the 79-year-old retired schoolteacher explained that she never wanted to cause Thurmond any harm during his life. Even now, she says that she loved her father and admits that keeping their relationship a secret was mutual. Until recently, she didn’t want anyone to know that he was her father.

“I never dreamed I would meet him,” she said of visiting him at his South Carolina law firm in 1941 when she was 13. “It did make me very happy. No, I wasn’t nervous. I was very delighted. We shook hands.”

The greeting was fitting. “The first time we saw each other, we did not embrace,” Washington-Williams said. “He was like a stranger.”

Over the course of their relationship — a strained father-daughter bond in which she’d meet him in hotel rooms or a closed office and after a while he’d hand her white envelopes of bills that eventually reached the thousands — she said that they grew close enough to embrace.

“We became closer, and I grew to care more about him the better I got to know him,” she said. “It took a long time.”

She explained that she never believed the money was “hush” money but rather a token of support.

Like most daughters, no matter the divide caused by race, she loved her father.

“He got to know me, and I got to know him,” Washington-Williams said. “It was all very positive, and I learned to care about him and he did seem to care about me.”
Unlike most fathers, he never told his daughter that he loved her. Somehow, she understood.

“He showed me with his actions that he cared,” she said. “I think it would have been nice after he retired if he would have publicly acknowledged me.”

Hard as this is to believe, she explained that there was never an advantage to divulging that she was his daughter sooner than she did. “It might have been damaging to him,” she said, “and I didn’t want to do that. Being in politics as he was, it wasn’t a subject he would want to talk about because he had enemies.”

“For a while, I didn’t even want people to know he was my father. It was a mutual feeling. He didn’t want people to know; I didn’t want people to know. It was just the way that I felt.”

For years, beginning when she was in college, reporters would contact her and try to pry the secret out of her. Ebony magazine was among the first publications to call and inquire if she was Thurmond’s daughter: “I told them I didn’t have any story. I said he was a friend of the family. I never told them any more than that.”

She recalls an instance when Thurmond was governor and finally suggested to her that he was indeed her father. “He did say to me once, ‘What does it feel like to be a daughter of a governor?’” she recalled. “I said it doesn’t bother me at all.”

What does Washington-Williams want people to understand most about her and her relationship with her father? “What I think my relationship with my father involves is a beautiful story about his life and my mother’s life and how they felt towards each other.”

Washington-Williams said she truly believes the relationship between her mother, Carrie Butler, and her father was more than physical and involved genuine love.
“I don’t have hard feelings,” she said. “I don’t see how that would serve any purpose. People have to be forgiving. I am a Christian, and I do believe in forgiveness. I don’t believe in revenge. What purpose would it serve?”

In the aftermath, Washington-Williams, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past 40 years, said she is finally at peace with her feelings about Thurmond, that her book has allowed her a freedom that was long overdue. She said she doesn’t believe her father was a racist in his heart, “but in the remarks that he made that would be the impression he would make. I don’t think those words came from the heart. I think it was a lot of politics.”

Today her name is inscribed at the bottom of a monument of her father in front of the capitol in South Carolina, and she has no regrets about how it all played out.

“That’s the way life is sometimes,” Washington-Williams said. “It’s not the way we always want it, but certain things happen beyond our control.”