Essie Mae Washington-Williams didn’t air her secret until she was 78. In December 2003, the retired public school teacher revealed what she had kept hidden her entire life—that she, a black woman, was the unacknowledged daughter of white segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. “At last,” she said, “I am completely free.”
Washington-Williams was born to Carrie Butler, a maid who worked in Thurmond’s family home in Edgefield, S.C., said the Los Angeles Times. Her mother was 16 at the time of her birth, and Thurmond was 22. She was 16 herself when her mother took her to meet her father for the first time in his law office. Thurmond said she resembled his sisters, but “that was as close as he got to acknowledging they were kin.”
Washington-Williams watched her mother die in 1948, said The New York Times, the same year Thurmond was the presidential candidate for the segregationist Dixiecrat Party. “All the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes,” went a typical Thurmond speech. “I wasn’t proud of him at that time,” she said in 2004. When she asked him why he believed so firmly in segregation, he said, “Well, that’s the way things have always been.”
“Still, father and daughter developed a bond that lasted throughout his life,” said the Charlotte, N.C., Observer. Thurmond paid for Washington-Williams’s college education and supported her financially throughout his life. When the Los Angeles schoolteacher was widowed in 1964, Thurmond upped his payments and put her children through college. After serving 47 years in the Senate, he died in 2003; while he had tempered his racist views, he never publicly acknowledged his eldest daughter.
Washington-Williams “decided to make her story public” six months after Thurmond died, said The Washington Post. Thurmond’s family accepted her claim, and even had her name added to a statue outside the South Carolina statehouse listing his family members. “In a way my life began at 78,” she later wrote. “I may have called it closure, but it was much more like an opening, a very grand opening.”