A new book by the mixed-race daughter of the late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond is shedding new light on a relationship kept secret for nearly 70 years. Dear Senator: A Memoir By the Daughter of Strom Thurmond is the story of Essie Mae Washington-Williams. She was born of an affair between Mr. Thurmond, an avowed segregationist, and an African-American teenager who worked as a maid in his family's house.
In December 2003, just months after the death of Strom Thurmond, Ms. Washington-Williams finally broke her silence at the age of 78. For most of her life she had denied rumors that she was, in fact, the first daughter of the Senator from South Carolina.
She stresses that keeping quiet was part of her own effort to protect the Senator's political career and preserve the relationship she enjoyed with the only father she ever knew. "He didn't say anything to me about that I not talk about the relationship," she says. "I just didn't do it."
In the 1940s, James Strom Thurmond, then governor of South Carolina, was the country's leading voice of racial segregation. He ran for U.S. president in 1948, winning four southern states and more than one million votes for the short-lived Dixiecrat Party. The group had broken way from the Democratic Party when the Democrats made civil rights a part of their platform. Later, in the U.S. Senate, he continued to oppose efforts at advancing racial equality. In 1957, he mounted the longest filibuster in the chamber's history - talking for more than 24 hours - in a failed effort to prevent passage of a civil rights bill.
Yet, at the same time, Senator Thurmond privately acknowledged Essie Mae as his daughter and gave her emotional and monetary support throughout her life, including financing her house, college and graduate school. Ms. Washington-Williams says she tried to reconcile her father's public face with his personal actions.
"When he was talking about racism and segregation, I didn't like that at all and spoke to him about it many, many times," she reveals. Ms. Washington-Williams says her father argued that there were "customs of the South that had always existed and that he didn't create it." He also indicated his inability to alter those customs. "He said there wasn't too much, as one person, he could do," she says, "and that the races had always been separate. I said, 'Yes, but that could be changed." Senator Thurmond could also avoid the topic. "When he wanted to get away from the subject," she says, "he'd start talking about something else."
Later in his Senate career, Mr. Thurmond moderated his views -- supporting integration and civil rights and reaching out to African Americans in South Carolina.
In Dear Senator, Essie Mae Washington-Williams speaks of Strom Thurmond with the same reverence and admiration most daughters have of their fathers. She describes their regular meetings in his office as warm, and says she believes her parents' relationship was a love affair.
But some critics of her book say it doesn't address the larger issues of race and class and how they affected the treatment of African-American women in America's Deep South. History professor Adele Logan Alexander of George Washington University is among those taking issue with the book for not addressing some of the larger societal truths. "After all," she says, "having a relationship with an African-American woman as he did with Essie Mae's mother was one way of maintaining white superiority."
Ms. Logan-Alexander says she can understand how the author might have had difficulty maintaining objectivity about the nature of her parents' relationship. "Her biological mother was certainly no more than 15…she was a maid in the Thurmond household, probably just a couple of steps removed from slavery," the GW professor says. "And the fact is that there was an understanding that white men had free access to what then were called colored or Negro women."
Whatever the reality was in the Thurmond household in the 1920s, Essie Mae Washington-Williams says the intent of her book was to "set the historical record straight," and provide personal closure for herself and her family. She has been hailed by African-American groups for speaking out…and also criticized for waiting so long to do so.
As a descendant of the Thurmond family, Ms. Washington-Williams is pursuing memberships in several patriotic organizations - the Daughters of the American Revolution, Daughters of the Confederacy, and Black Patriots Foundation. She says her efforts to join the groups are being made on behalf of her children and grandchildren, whom she hopes "will connect with all aspects of their heritage -- black and white."