Essie Mae Washington-Williams was eulogized Saturday as a woman of grace and compassion, whose life story will be lodged in the history books as an intriguing and, ultimately, American story.
The daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and a young black maid, Washington-Williams died Feb. 3 after an extended illness. Washington-Williams, who was 87, revealed the secret of her paternity in 2003, shortly after Thurmond’s death.
A retired educator who had lived much of her life in California, Washington-Williams had moved back to South Carolina with her children about five years ago, remaining here until the end of her life.
Dozens of friends and family members from both the Williams and Thurmond families – her father’s publicly recognized children included – filled the sanctuary of Brookland Baptist, located about two miles from the State House.
Despite having never acknowledged her publicly as his first born, Thurmond met with her numerous times, encouraging her to pursue her education. In turn, Washington-Williams never displayed any public bitterness toward Thurmond, and would often say the two had only mutual respect for each other.
It was this sense of grace in the face of societal pressures, her unwavering character and love of family, that many said Saturday she would ultimately be remembered for.
Frank Wheaton, the lawyer-friend who represented Washington-Williams in 2003, told those gathered that early on he realized the importance of Washington-Williams’ story in the “placement of American history.” He said the mother of four and grandmother of 14 would leave a legacy of conviction and strength.
“It is that lesson that America may learn to appreciate in the years to come,” he said.
Wheaton, along with the president of Washington-Williams’ sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, Doris Cochran, and four family members spoke during the two-hour service.
Washington-Williams’ mother, Carrie Butler, was a maid who worked for the Thurmond family. After Essie Mae was born, she was raised by her aunt and uncle, Mary and John Washington, in Coatesville, Pa. Her mother died at 38.
Washington-Williams later attended S.C. State College in Orangeburg on Thurmond’s recommendation. There she met her husband, Julius Williams. Williams, an attorney, died in 1964.
A lifelong educator, Washington-Williams won numerous awards, received a master’s degree from the University of Southern California and an honorary doctoral degree from S.C. State University.
The Williamses had four children, Ronald Williams, Wanda Bailey, Monica Hudgens and Julius Williams. Julius Williams died recently in Seattle.
At the service, the Rev. James A. Jamison said in his eulogy that Washington-Williams suffered earthly sickness, including a heart attack and the amputation of a leg, but never failed to keep her faith in Jesus. Citing scripture from the New Testament, he said Washington-Williams had fought the good fight.
“Thank you, Dr. Washington, for fighting well, for fighting well,” he said.
Saturday’s service was followed by an entombment in Celestial Memorial Gardens in Lexington County.
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