Williams-Bailey: How our family’s revelation rewrote history

Guest ColumnistDecember 16, 2013 

— It was 10 years ago tomorrow, on Dec. 17, 2003, a Wednesday morning, when my mother stepped into the spotlight to reveal to the world an explosive secret she had kept for more than 65 years.

The room at the Adams Mark Hotel in Columbia was filled to capacity with media, dignitaries and spectators. Cameras were flashing from every angle, and bystanders were spellbound by the scene, taking in every movement in the ballroom.

Then, with grace, courage and dignity, my lovely, aging mother stepped up to the podium to make her proclamation and to claim her legacy: “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, my name is Essie Mae Washington-Williams. My mother, who is now deceased, was named Carrie Butler. My father’s name was James Strom Thurmond.”

In that moment, my mother rewrote history. She revealed herself as the first-born child of a high-profile political figure. But he was not just a white Southern politician who had made out or even, as rumored, possibly raped the hired help, then silenced their biracial daughter for decades. He was a man whose political posturing was considered racist. The man who fought the Civil Rights Act in 1957 with the longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. Senate.

My grandmother, a very attractive 16-year-old black housekeeper, worked for the Thurmond family in Edgefield. And on Oct. 12, 1925, Essie Mae was born into the secret that lasted for decades.

Secrets can hold families captive, and my mother’s secret was no exception. She had maintained a long-standing private relationship with her father, and she never wanted to adversely affect his career or damage his reputation. In fact, their bond was so strong that my mother convinced herself that making her lineage public was not necessary, or even warranted.

She remained resilient to her secret life, and my siblings and I unwittingly became the caretakers for our mother’s deep, dark secrets.

My father, the late Julius Thomas Williams Jr. , a civil rights attorney in Savannah, had no affection for my grandfather, only disdain; he wanted nothing less than to dismantle his efforts toward segregation. In spite of it all, my father adored my mother, who was trapped between the two men she loved —one for his beliefs, and the other despite his beliefs.

It was as the granddaughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond that I found myself called to help my incredible mother reveal the secrets of her biracial parentage to the world. I believed that the revelation would bring much-needed closure and peace for our family; however, no such tranquility resulted. Once the secret was divulged to the world in 2003, a Pandora’s Box of more secrets and sad stories was let loose on our family.

Although, I am sometimes troubled by my findings and what has been uncovered during this journey of discovery, I have gained a better understanding of the hardships my parents experienced and the decisions they made. My upcoming book will tell more of the truth about my family, their complicated life and the ever-presence of Strom Thurmond in our lives.

Ms. Williams-Bailey is a job developer and consultant living in the Irmo-Chapin area; contact her at azizi40@gmail.com

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