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Former teacher and guidance counselor in the Los Angeles school system – 27 years
Mother of four adult children, 13 grandchildren, 4 great-grandchildren
CBN.com The First Shocker: I Am Your Mother
December 2003 brought some astounding news to the world – legendary South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond was the father of a 78-year-old daughter that the world knew nothing about. Most astounding was that this daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, had a black mother, a mother that Essie Mae didn’t know was her birth mother until she was 13 years old.
It was the summer of 1938 when Essie Mae’s tranquil life in Coatesville, Penn., totally changed. Her father, John Henry Washington, worked in the steel mills, as did many in this steel town and simply disappeared from her life one day. Her parents got divorced. In keeping with her mother’s (Mary) philosophy of the fewer the questions the better, Essie Mae learned to keep her questions to herself. It was also during this year that a tall, regal lady came to visit them. Mary introduced the visitor as Essie Mae’s Aunt Carrie, but there was something so mesmerizing about this lady that Essie couldn’t take her eyes off her and followed her around the house. Finally, Carrie gave her the sweetest smile and said, “I’m your mother, you know.” “I was stunned speechless,” Essie Mae says. If this beautiful creature was her mother, who were the woman and man whom she’d thought were her parents all those years?
The story began to unfold. Carrie put Essie Mae in the care of her sister Mary, who was moving up north with her husband from Edgefield, S.C., to live a better life. It was a giant sacrifice, Carrie said, but it was all about Essie’s welfare. Children were often “farmed out” like this among black families in those days, but it was rarely talked about.
The Second Shocker: He's Your Father
It was six months before Essie saw Carrie again. Carrie had moved north, and they grew closer when she spent more time with her. Essie had a brother named Willie, and they spent wonderful times touring Philadelphia. Mary wasn’t a very religious person and would sleep in on Sundays, but Essie grew to love the church at age 13 and joined it. Carrie was active in a Pentecostal church. Essie’s faith in Christ has always been an integral part of her life.
Essie still had questions about her real father, but mindful of her mother Mary’s admonition about asking too many questions, Essie didn’t ask. Three years later, when she was 16, that changed. Essie and her family were to go to South Carolina for a family funeral. This was Essie’s first trip south, and all her fantasies about travel changed once she reached Richmond, Va., and saw segregation in full force. In the tiny town of Edgefield, S.C., after walking past many palatial homes, she finally met her mother’s family, who lived in virtual shacks with no running water or electricity. There was nothing to do, really, but go from house to house and eat.
One morning prior to leaving, Carrie woke Essie and told her she would meet her father that day. Essie had noticed that her complexion was much lighter than her mother’s, but didn’t dare ask why. Carrie fussed about what Essie’s clothes were for this meeting. She and Carrie walked passed many black men working outside. Essie thought sooner or later one of them would be introduced to her as her father. They finally arrived at a one-story white building that housed a law office – Thurmond & Thurmond, Attys at Law. Essie thought her new daddy “was a driver for a big-shot lawyer.” As they stood in a grand office stocked floor to ceiling with law books and diplomas, Essie saw a fair, handsome man enter. He gazed at her mother for a long while, “then stared at me even longer.” “You have a lovely young daughter,” he said. Essie was speechless. “Essie Mae,” Carrie said, with a big smile, “meet your father.” Essie couldn’t get out one word. “This was even crazier than when I learned that Carrie was my mother,” she says.
Their awkward conversation led to an impromptu history lesson on the South Carolina state seal. Her father had been a teacher and had a love for learning, Essie discovered. She also learned that this is how her mother knew so many things. Once their visit was completed, Strom gripped her hand in a vise-like grip and pumped it vigorously. Back at her family’s home, everyone wondered how the meeting with her father went – it seemed everyone knew about this little secret but her!
Before returning to Penn., Strom’s sister Mary drove up to their shanty home carrying an envelope with $200 inside. It was an enormous sum in 1941. It was the first of many cash gifts over the years. Wanting to keep their relationship secret, for political and social reasons, Thurmond strove never to leave a paper trail.
Strom, the Dixiecrat
As with Carrie, after each visit, Essie Mae never knew when she would see her father again. Essie was a good student, and Strom took an active interest in her life and education, inquiring about her educational plans whenever they talked. She dreamed of a career in medicine, but that changed after enrolling in a nursing program in Harlem. When her dreams of attending Harvard evaporated, through her father’s influence she attended what is now South Carolina State College.
Strom continued his rise in politics. By now Governor of South Carolina, Strom would come to see her at the college, identifying her as a family friend. Essie Mae relates the story of how Strom became the standard bearer of the Dixiecrat Party, carrying the hope of Southern whites to keep segregation in place. He was the product of this system and sincerely believed that separate but equal was the way to go. Strom incurred the wrath of Harry Truman in 1948 when he led the Deep South in revolt against Harry Truman after Truman supported Civil Rights. Southern whites bombarded the White House with hate mail. At the Southern Governor’s Conference in Tallahassee, Fla., the South was in vitriolic revolt. Strom took it upon himself to defend “the honor of the South” and attacked President Truman relentlessly, which made him immensely popular in the South.
Essie Mae was in college at the time and miserable. Her father had gone from someone who helped blacks to being their worst enemy. She couldn’t talk to anyone and carried her anguish alone. By now she had decided to get married to Julius Williams, a fellow student who was a former Marine and WWII vet, without him knowing who her father was. When she told him, he was bemused and didn’t want to tell anyone about the familial connection, either.
As Thurmond rose in the national spotlight, he and Essie Mae maintained their relationship. It was a very unusual one. He was always interested in his daughter and kept tabs on every stage of her life. He offered her advice and gave her money. When he became senator, she visited him often, one time taking her older son, Julius Jr., when he was about 7. Because of his political ambitions, Strom was careful to keep their relationship private. Essie Mae, always the reticent one, at times would muster up the courage to confront him on some of his positions, believing she influenced him to change. She watched his public life from the sidelines – his two marriages, the death of his first wife, the birth of four children to his second. He showed interest in the growth of her family – Julius attending law school, their four children. Essie visited him many times at his Senate office for updates.
Essie never got the full scope of her mother’s relationship with her father, but she believed he cared for her very deeply. Carrie was a teenage worker in the Thurmond family home when she got pregnant, a common social occurrence in those days. Carrie’s death from kidney failure at age 36 deeply touched him.
Strom was there for Essie when Julius died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving her a young widow in Los Angeles to rear four children. His monetary gifts were a big help. Though many speculated over the years that she was Strom’s daughter, Essie never talked to any media. The chief reason was that she loved her father and didn’t want to do anything to harm him. She kept the secret so closely that she didn’t tell her own children until her oldest son was almost 20 years old. That was occasioned by the Senator’s visit to California for a speaking engagement and his wanting to meet all of her children – his grandchildren, though he never called them that. They couldn’t fathom this connection either, and were enraged and embarrassed by it, but kept their mother’s secret.
Peace at Last
Though Essie Mae loved her father and he loved her, she never sat down and had even a Coke in public with him. In the '90s, as he gradually slowed with age, she was mindful of the hurts over the years of not being included in his family gatherings. She was saddened to hear of the death of his daughter who was killed by a drunk driver; it was sad, too, that she could not attend the funeral and grieve with him and the family.
Even more difficult was his death on June 26, 2003, and she could not be there as the nation paid respects. “I tried to feel at peace with the passing of my father,” Essie says, “but I couldn’t.” Strom Thurmond had won big in life, with enormous power, prestige, a great family. “Why was I so unsettled, so discontent? It was because he and I had never really made our peace,” she says. He had changed, this was true, but says Essie, “he and I had never so much as sat down together for a meal. We had never said 'I love you' to each other. We had never confronted the reality of our relationship. Too much remained unsaid.”
Essie’s daughter Wanda refused to let her off the confrontation hook. "He’s gone now," she said. "Why don’t you write a book?" Wanda also wondered about the financial settlements to come. Essie was 78 years old and still very hesitant to do anything, but she did agree to at least let Wanda talk to a lawyer about it. The lawyer, Frank Wheaton, knew he had a monumental task to try to establish paternity, but was willing to take it on. Finding a lawyer in South Carolina to work with was daunting. His first letter to the Thurmond attorneys brought a curt reply and no compliance.
With the six-month statute of limitations running out in days, going to the media was his only option. He contacted a reporter from the Washington Post who’d been suspicious for years, scheduled a press conference in S.C., and Dan Rather was scheduled to come to her L.A . home for an interview. During the same time, Saddam Hussein was captured, which took over the news cycle. But Dan still wanted to do the story and asked Essie Mae to come to New York. At the airport, just as they were leaving for New York, the Thurmond estate contacted Frank Wheaton to say that they accepted the genetic paternity of Mrs. Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Essie says having her secret made public was like a weight lifted from her shoulders. She could now take her own special place in history. She at last had peace.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams believes in Jesus Christ. Her spiritual foundation has been the primary influence in her humility and the ability to survive through the years.
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