Essie Mae Washington-Williams

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Essie Mae Washington-Williams
Essie Mae Washington-Williams.jpg
Washington-Williams in 2003
Born(1925-10-12)October 12, 1925
Edgefield, South Carolina, U.S.
DiedFebruary 4, 2013(2013-02-04) (aged 87)
EducationSouth Carolina State College
California State University, Los Angeles (B.A.)
University of Southern California (M.Ed.)
Julius T. Williams
(m. 1948; died 1964)
Parent(s)Strom Thurmond
Carrie Butler
RelativesPaul Thurmond (half-brother)

Essie Mae Washington-Williams (October 12, 1925 – February 4, 2013) was an American teacher, author, and writer. She is best known as the eldest child of Strom Thurmond, Governor of South Carolina (1947-1951) and longtime United States Senator, known for his pro–racial segregation policies.[1] Of mixed race, she was born to Carrie Butler, a 16-year-old African-American 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 1938 when her mother came for a visit and informed Essie Mae she was her mother.[2]:13 She graduated from college, earned a master's degree, married, raised 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 at the age of 100 in 2003. Though he had little to do with her upbringing, he had paid for her college education and took an interest in her and her family all his life. In 2005, she published her autobiography, which was nominated for the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

Early life[edit]

Washington was the daughter of Carrie Butler, who was 16 when her daughter was born, and Strom Thurmond, then 22. Carrie 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.[3] 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.[4]

Washington and her mother met infrequently with Thurmond after that, although they had some contact for years.[5] 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 visit the segregated South until 1942, when she met relatives in Edgefield. After having grown up in Pennsylvania, Washington was shocked by the racial restrictions of the South. She returned to the north to live with relatives during the war years. After Thurmond returned from World War II, she started college at the all-black South Carolina State College (SCSC) in the fall of 1947.[2]:128 Thurmond quietly paid for her college education. She met and married future lawyer Julius Williams at SCSC in 1948. Her first child, Julius Williams Jr., was born in 1949. As a result, Essie Mae Washington-Williams dropped out of college in the summer of 1949 to begin raising the first of her four children.[2]:151


During the late 1950s and 1960s, the years of national activism in the civil rights movement, Washington occasionally tried to discuss racism with Thurmond, who was known for his long-time political support of segregation, but he brushed off her complaints about segregated facilities.[5] Nevertheless, Washington-Williams felt that she made a significant impact on Thurmond during their private conversations on race and race relations and that Thurmond's policies towards African-Americans were affected as a result. In 1976, for example, Thurmond nominated Matthew J. Perry,[6] whom Essie Mae dated in 1947 shortly before she met her first husband, to the U.S. Court of Military Appeals. Thurmond became the first Southern senator to nominate an African American for a federal judgeship.[2]:198

Following the death of her husband in 1964, Washington moved again to Los Angeles, California, where she completed her undergraduate studies to receive a bachelor's degree from California State University, Los Angeles in 1969[2]:187 and earned a master's degree in education at the University of Southern California.[7][8] She had a 30-year career as a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District from 1967 through 1997.[5] She was a longtime member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which she joined while at South Carolina State.

Personal life[edit]

In 1949, Washington left college before her junior year after marrying Julius T. Williams, a law student at SCSC, the previous year. After his graduation from law school, they moved to his home town, Savannah, Georgia, where he established a law practice and was active in the NAACP.[7][9] 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 Revolutionary War.[10] This organization became defunct the following year. Another group is now raising funds for the monument.

In 2004 Washington-Williams applied for membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy based on her heritage through Thurmond to ancestors who fought as Confederate soldiers.[11] She died before being accepted. [12] She also intended to join the Daughters of the American Revolution.[10]


Washington-Williams died February 4, 2013, in Columbia, South Carolina, at age 87.[13][14]

Legacy and honors[edit]

When Washington-Williams announced her family connection, it was acknowledged by the Thurmond family.[1] 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.[10]

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.[5] It was nominated for both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.


  1. ^ a b Janofsky, Michael. "Thurmond Kin Acknowledge Black Daughter", The New York Times, December 16, 2004
  2. ^ a b c d e Washington-Williams, Essie Mae (2005). Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. Harper.
  3. ^ Gross, Terry (February 1, 2005). "'Dear Senator', from Strom Thurmond's Daughter", National Public Radio.
  4. ^ Gettleman, Jeffrey (December 18, 2003), "Final Word: 'My Father's Name Was James Strom Thurmond'", The New York Times.
  5. ^ a b c d Maslin, Janet (January 17, 2005). "A Thurmond Child Looks at Her Life and His Racism", The New York Times, retrieved March 27, 2009
  6. ^ "Congressional Record" (PDF). 1 August 2011: E1480. Retrieved 9 January 2017. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ a b Woo, Elaine (February 4, 2013). "Essie Mae Washington-Williams dies at 87; black daughter of segregationist Strom Thurmond". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 19, 2014.
  8. ^ "Dr. Essie Mae Washington", Strom Thurmond Center, Clemson University
  9. ^ Bass, Jack; Thompson, Marilyn W. (2006). Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond. PublicAffairs. p. 148. ISBN 978-1-58648-392-0. Retrieved January 19, 2014.
  10. ^ a b c "Daughter of late Sen. Strom Thurmond to join Confederacy group", Jet, July 19, 2004, retrieved March 26, 2009
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ "Strom Thurmond's Daughter, Essie Mae Washington Williams, Dies". WLTX.TV. Archived from the original on 17 February 2013. Retrieved 5 February 2013.
  14. ^ "Strom Thurmond's Mixed-race Daughter Dies At 87". Archived from the original on February 17, 2013. Retrieved February 4, 2013.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.

External links[edit]