Essie Mae Washington-Williams’ decades-old secret made shockwaves in 2003.
Months after legendary U.S. senator Strom Thurmond died at age 100, Washington-Williams decided she had waited long enough to reveal that she was his secret daughter.
There had been rumors that Thurmond, a white politician who recorded the longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. Senate while fighting the Civil Rights Act in 1957, had a biracial daughter. Washington-Williams held a news conference in Columbia with some 250 reporters in attendance to tell the world.
“I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I am completely free,” she was quoted as saying.
Washington-Williams was born in 1925 to Carrie Butler, a young black maid who worked in Thurmond’s parents’ Edgefield home. Thurmond never ackowledged Washington-Williams publicly but met with her throughout her life, providing financial assistance and persuading her to attend S.C. State College.
She became a successful teacher and spent most of her adult life in California before retiring in 1997, eventually moving back to South Carolina.
Her name in 2004 was etched on the statue honoring Thurmond on the State House grounds, added to a list of the senator’s other four children.
Her 2005 memoir, “Dear Senator,” reached No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list and was nominated for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.
Washington-Williams died in 2013 at age 87 after an extended illness.
About this series: The inaugural edition of The State newspaper was published Feb. 18, 1891. In anticipation of the 125th anniversary, the Palmetto section and this section at thestate.com are recounting each day how The State covered newsmakers and events vital to South Carolina’s history.