Essie Mae Washington-Williams
|Essie Mae Washington-Williams|
October 12, 1925|
Edgefield, South Carolina
|Died||February 4, 2013
Columbia, South Carolina
|Spouse(s)||Julius T. Williams
(1948–1964; his death)
|Parents||Strom Thurmond (father)
Carrie Butler (mother)
Essie Mae Washington-Williams (October 12, 1925 – February 4, 2013) was an American teacher and writer. She is best known as the oldest and natural child of Strom Thurmond, Governor of South Carolina and longtime United States Senator. Of mixed race, she was born to Carrie Butler, a 16-year-old black girl who worked as a household servant for Thurmond's parents, and Thurmond, then 22 and unmarried. Washington-Williams grew up in the family of one of her mother's sisters, not learning of her biological parents until age 16. She graduated from college, earned a master's degree, married and had a family, and had a 30-year professional career in education.
Washington-Williams did not reveal her biological father's identity until she was 78 years old, after Thurmond's death in 2003. He had paid for her and her children's college educations and took an interest in her and her family all his life. In 2004 she joined the Daughters of the American Revolution and United Daughters of the Confederacy through Thurmond's ancestral lines. She encouraged other African Americans to join such lineage societies, to enlarge the histories they represent. In 2005, she published her autobiography, which was nominated for the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
Early life and education
Washington was the natural daughter of Carrie Butler, who was 16 when her daughter was born, and Strom Thurmond, then 22. Butler worked as a domestic servant for Thurmond's parents. She sent her daughter from South Carolina to her older sister Mary and her husband John Henry Washington to be raised in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. The girl was named Essie after another of Carrie's sisters, who fostered her briefly as an infant. Essie Mae grew up with her cousin, seven years older than she, who she believed was her half-brother. Washington was unaware of the identity of her biological parents until 1941, when she was 16. Her mother told her the full story then and took her to meet Thurmond in person.
Washington and her mother met infrequently with Thurmond after that, although they had some contact for years. After high school, Washington-Williams worked as a nurse at Harlem Hospital in New York City, and took a course in business education at New York University.
She did not live in the segregated South until 1942, when she started college at South Carolina State University (SCSU), a historically black college. Thurmond paid for her college education. After having grown up in Pennsylvania, Washington was shocked by the racial restrictions of the South. She graduated from SCSU around 1946 with a degree in business.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, the years of national activism in the civil rights movement, Washington occasionally tried to talk with Thurmond about racism. He brushed off her complaints about segregated facilities. He was notorious for his long political support of segregation.
Washington later moved to Los Angeles, California, where she earned a master's degree in education at the University of Southern California. She had a 30-year career as a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District from 1967 through 1997. She was a longtime member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which she joined while at South Carolina State University.
In 1948 Washington married Julius T. Williams, an attorney. They had two sons and two daughters together. He died in 1964. Three children live in the Seattle, Washington, area, and one daughter lives near Los Angeles. Washington-Williams has numerous grandchildren.
In 2004 Washington-Williams said that she intended to be active on behalf of the Black Patriots Foundation, which was raising funds to build a monument on the National Mall in Washington D.C. to honor American blacks who served in the American Revolutionary War. (This organization became defunct the following year. Another group is now raising funds for the monument.)
Legacy and honors
- When Washington-Williams announced her family connection, it was acknowledged by the Thurmond family. In 2004 the state legislature approved the addition of her name to the list of Thurmond children on a monument for Senator Thurmond on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.
Washington-Williams said she would apply for membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, based on her heritage through Thurmond to ancestors who fought as Confederate soldiers. She encouraged other African Americans to join lineage societies, in the interests of exploring their heritage and promoting a more inclusive view of American history. She said,
"It is important for all Americans to have the opportunity to know and understand their bloodline. Through my father's line, I am fortunate to trace my heritage back to the birth of our nation and beyond. On my mother's side, like most African Americans, my history is broken by the course of human events."
The lineage society is open to female descendants of Confederate veterans of the American Civil War. As her father Thurmond had been a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, his completed genealogical documentation was sufficient for her to qualify for membership. She also intended to join the Daughters of the American Revolution.
- In 2005, Washington-Williams was awarded an honorary Ph.D. in education from South Carolina State University at Orangeburg when she was invited to speak at their commencement ceremony.
- She published a memoir, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond (2005), written with William Stadiem. It explored her sense of dislocation based on her mixed heritage, as well as going to college in the segregated South after having grown up in Pennsylvania. It was nominated for both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
- Janofsky, Michael. "Thurmond Kin Acknowledge Black Daughter", The New York Times, December 16, 2004
- Gross, Terry (February 1, 2005). "'Dear Senator', from Strom Thurmond's Daughter", National Public Radio.
- Gettleman, Jeffrey (December 18, 2003), "Final Word: 'My Father's Name Was James Strom Thurmond'", The New York Times.
- Maslin, Janet (January 17, 2005). "A Thurmond Child Looks at Her Life and His Racism", The New York Times, retrieved March 27, 2009
- "Dr. Essie Mae Washington", Strom Thurmond Center, Clemson University
- "Daughter of late Sen. Strom Thurmond to join Confederacy group", Jet, July 19, 2004, retrieved March 26, 2009
- "Strom Thurmond's Daughter, Essie Mae Washington Williams, Dies". WLTX.TV. Retrieved 5 February 2013.
- "Strom Thurmond's Mixed-race Daughter Dies At 87". Retrieved February 4, 2013.
- Essie Mae Washington-Williams and William Stadiem, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond, Regan Books, 2005. ISBN 0-06-076095-8.
- Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson, Ol' Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond, University of South Carolina Press, 2003. ISBN 1-57003-514-8.
- Jack Bass and Marilyn W.Thompson, Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond, Public Affairs, 2005. ISBN 1-58648-297-1.
- Gross, Terry, "'Dear Senator', from Strom Thurmond's Daughter", Interview, National Public Radio, February 1, 2005.
- Rather, Dan, "Essie Mae Washington-Williams", Interview, CBS 60 Minutes II, December 17, 2003
- "South Carolina: Biracial Child Added To Thurmond Monument", New York Times, June 29, 2004
- More about Essie Mae Washington-Williams, Frank Wheaton Official Website
- Essie Mae Washington-Williams at Find a Grave