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From the archives: 'Strom Thurmond Was My Father'

December 17, 2003|By Essie Mae Washington Williams
  • Caricature of Strom Thurmond
Caricature of Strom Thurmond (Julia Suits / Minneapolis )

Strom Thurmond was my father. I have known this since 1941, when I was 16 years old. My mother took me to his law office and introduced me to him as his daughter and him to me as my father.

It was a very cordial meeting and was the beginning of a lifetime of warm and friendly encounters. In fact, the impetus for a closer relationship often came from him, such as when he suggested I attend South Carolina State College.

Even though the circumstances of my birth were not traditional, I appreciated the relationship that evolved across the years between my father and me.

Many have asked why I have never said anything before about Strom Thurmond being my father. The answer is quite simple. I had no reason to do anything before now. It would not have been an advantage to him or to me to say anything publicly about our relationship. Whenever I was asked, I decided to answer that we were good friends. I never wanted to do anything to hurt my father or his career. And as the world knows, it was quite a long career.

I also saw no personal benefit in revealing what was an embarrassing situation for me as well as for him. We had a good relationship, and there was no reason to say anything about it. I knew this, and he never asked me to hold this fact in confidence.

The next logical question, of course, is why am I speaking out now. It was not my idea to say anything at all. But I am finally relenting to more than 50 years of media speculation, implication, investigation and harassment. This pressure pinnacled with his 100th birthday and recent death. Reporters have been camped outside my home and constantly calling on the phone.

My children ultimately convinced me that history needed to know about Thurmond and that I should set the record straight.

I am not doing this for money. I am not suing his estate. I just want to tell the truth.

Part of me wonders what is so special about me. Thousands and thousands of black people born in the South during that time could tell my story. Many have made a big deal about Sally Hemings and her lover, Thomas Jefferson -- an example of common practice during slavery. But what makes her special and what makes me special is not that we had white men in our lives, but who those white men were in American history.

I never wanted to be a political figure. I viewed my relationship with my father as personal, not political. He was a politician and did what he did at that time. Later, his views on segregation changed with the times. I don't believe that if I had revealed the fact that he was my father it would have ended segregation any sooner. He may or may not have lost the governorship or his Senate seat. But I am sure the Dixiecrats would have elected another segregationist in his place.

Many ask how I can prove that I am Strom Thurmond's daughter.

I don't have a birth certificate. I never have had one. I was born in 1925 in Aiken, S.C., and was delivered by a midwife. My birth was never registered -- not uncommon in the rural South. But I know that a lifetime of personal visits, correspondence, money and gifts to me and my children on special occasions offer plenty of evidence of his paternity.

I destroyed all of the correspondence in my possession. I understand that he did not. Reporters have found documents in his archives that I sent to him. For those who continue to doubt, I am prepared to provide DNA evidence.

Fortunately, none of this will be necessary. On Monday, the Thurmond family acknowledged my "claim to my heritage." I am extremely appreciative of their acknowledgments. While I remain confident of my assertion, I am very glad to avoid a long and protracted argument regarding who my father is.

I am not bitter toward him. Throughout his life, he was very kind and generous to my family and me.

I don't need anything from him now in his death. I am only finishing the story that will be told when this chapter in history is written.

Essie Mae Washington Williams is a retired teacher living in Los Angeles.

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