Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the long-unrecognized daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, died late Sunday at 87.
Washington-Williams, the daughter of onetime segregationist Thurmond and an African-American maid in his parents’ Edgefield home, was living in Irmo at the time of her death, according to a notice from Leevy’s Funeral Home in Columbia.
Funeral services were tentatively set for Saturday in the Columbia area.
It was not until 2003, after the death of the U.S. senator of 48 years, that Washington-Williams revealed Thurmond was her father.
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At the time, the Thurmond family said the senator never had mentioned his first-born child, but they swiftly acknowledged her claim.
Thurmond’s youngest son, state Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, said in an email Monday that he was “sorry to hear of the passing of Ms. Washington-Williams. She was kind and gracious, and I have the greatest respect for her, her life and her legacy.”
Wanda Bailey, Washington-Williams’ daughter, said Monday night that her mother was an inspiration to her family.
“She was there for us,” Bailey said. “She was a very giving person. She did everything she could not only for her children, but her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
“I’m very proud of my mother.”
A long-held secret
Washington-Williams was 78 when she first came forward to say Thurmond was her father in a 2003 interview with The Washington Post.
A week later, the retired Los Angeles teacher told her story at a press conference in Columbia, saying, “At last, I feel completely free.”
At the Columbia press conference, Washington-Williams said her mother, Carrie Butler, was a maid who worked for the Thurmond family. She said she met her father for the first time at 16.
Washington-Williams was raised by her aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania. Her mother died at 38.
After high school and on Thurmond’s recommendation, Washington-Williams enrolled in the then-S.C. State College in Orangeburg. There, she met her husband, the late Julius Williams, who was studying to become an attorney.
Thurmond, the governor of South Carolina, kept in touch with Washington-Williams, visiting her on occasion and providing financial support, she said in 2003. That communication and support continued when Thurmond became a U.S. senator, but Washington-Williams said she knew the Democrat-turned-Republican “beyond his public image.”
Washington-Williams also explained why she waited until after Thurmond’s death to tell her story publicly. “Throughout his life and mine, we respected each other. I never wanted to do anything to harm him or cause detriment to his life or the lives of those around him. My father did a lot of things to help other people, even though his public stance appeared opposite.”
Washington-Williams said she previously had explained her relationship to Thurmond to her children to help them understand their past.
The 2003 announcement brought to a close the decades-old rumor that Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 on the segregationist States’ Rights Democratic Party platform, had fathered a child with a black woman.
In 2004, Washington-Williams’ name was etched on the statue honoring Thurmond on the State House grounds, alongside the names of the senator’s other four children.
Washington-Williams also penned a memoir about her life called “Dear Senator.”
During her 2005 book tour, she stayed with members of the Thurmond family, said Frank Wheaton, a Los Angeles attorney who spoke Monday on behalf of her family.
Washington-Williams’ three surviving children were in South Carolina with their mother when she passed away after spending some time in declining health, Wheaton said, adding they wanted to express their gratitude and appreciation to those offering their condolences and love for their mother.
‘A very complex relationship’
Charleston journalist Jack Bass, who co-wrote the Thurmond biography “Ol’ Strom,” said he does not think Washington-Williams ever held hard feelings toward Thurmond.
“It was a very complex relationship,’’ Bass said. “He provided financial support. Did he pay to keep her quiet? I think it was more complex than that.’’
Bass described Washington-Williams as a reserved, churchgoing person who took good care of her children — Thurmond’s grandchildren.
Former Washington Post reporter Marilyn Thompson, who co-wrote “Ol’ Strom” with Bass, was one of the first journalists to write a story raising questions about Thurmond’s relationship to Washington-Williams.
“This was the quintessential American historic tale that said a lot about race in America and politics in America,’’ said Thompson, now with Reuters. “I always thought she had one of the most interesting lives I had ever read about anywhere.’’
Thompson, a former Columbia Record reporter, described Washington-Williams as cool and gracious when questioned about Thurmond being her father.
“It was never her intention to embarrass Sen. Thurmond,’’ Thompson said of Washington-Williams. “In her own way, she loved him deeply.’’
Thompson said Washington-Williams’ feelings toward Thurmond surprised her at first.
“I thought she would view him with great bitterness and perhaps even hatred, but she didn’t feel that,’’ Thompson said. “She made that clear to me from the beginning.’’
Despite money the senator had given his daughter through the years, Thurmond’s treatment of Washington-Williams was not particularly warm or caring, Thompson said. She said Washington-Williams had a difficult life, working as a teacher in California and raising children.
“She was an incredibly proud and gracious woman with a high sense of refinement,’’ Thompson said. “She was a really lovely person who, in my opinion, dealt with an enormous amount of adversity in her life and who managed to somehow raise four children, watch them grow up and succeed.’’