Published on Friday, December 26, 2003 by the New York Times
Senator Strom Thurmond's Deception Ravaged Two Lives
by Brent Staples
White descendants of Senator Strom Thurmond are frantic about the revelation that he fathered the child of a black maid who worked in the family household in South Carolina during the 1920's. The black daughter, a retired teacher named Essie Mae Washington-Williams, denied the relationship and met secretly with her father for more than 60 years. Her children encouraged her to go public after Mr. Thurmond died last summer at the age of 100.
A white Thurmond niece spoke for many in the family when she described the revelation as "a blight" on the family. White Thurmonds who share this sentiment should get over their misplaced shame — and think about the two lives that were irreparably damaged by 60 years of deception and lies.
Consider Ms. Washington-Williams, who never knew her father until age 16 and lived the next half-century listening to him deny her existence. Think, too, of her mother, Carrie Butler, who may have been as young as 15 when she became pregnant by the young Mr. Thurmond. Ms. Butler chose to send her child north to relatives rather than watch her grow up in the plantation South of the 1920's, where she, too, might have worked as a maid and been preyed upon by white employers like Mr. Thurmond.
The details of Ms. Butler's life outside the Thurmond home have yet to be uncovered. But recent interviews given by Ms. Washington-Williams, combined with what historians have written about the period, provide a clear picture of the obstacles she faced as a black maid carrying the child of the scion of a powerful white family.
Children born of these relationships were often scorned by both the white and black communities. Those who looked too much like the white master of the house were sometimes cast out by his wife. Black husbands sometimes resorted to the same strategy if their wives had light-skinned babies — often as a result of being raped on the job.
Light-skinned children in otherwise brown families were a vivid reminder of black powerlessness in the face of white authority. The cruelty shown to these children was vivid in the early life of another South Carolinian, the actress Eartha Kitt, born a few years after Ms. Washington-Williams. Ms. Kitt's family was forced from the plantation where her mother worked and was later denied shelter by an uncle who refused to have what he called a little yellow girl under his roof.
Ms. Butler would have known these dynamics well by the time she gave birth to Strom Thurmond's child in 1925. She also knew that baby Essie Mae's future would be predetermined if she grew up in backward, rural and racist Edgefield County. As was common at the time, Ms. Butler took the baby north to be raised by a sister.
She returned to South Carolina, disappearing from the child's life. Mr. Thurmond may have initially forced himself upon Ms. Butler, but over the years, that relationship clearly turned into something else. Ms. Butler, like others in her predicament, might have seen such a relationship as a way to secure a future for her daughter.
The account offered by Ms. Washington-Williams suggests that the relationship went on at least until she turned 16 — and learned from her mother that her as yet unnamed father was alive and wished to meet her.
After 60 years, she still sees her first encounter with Mr. Thurmond through the eyes of a child who had been raised apart from her mother and was hungry to meet her long-lost father. His credentials as a segregationist barely registered with her. As she told Dan Rather in an interview for "60 Minutes II": "I took the name of my aunt and her husband. And yet I knew I had a dad somewhere. But I had never met him, and nobody ever talked about him."
The Strom Thurmond who emerges from these recollections is a mercenary character. He had already been elected to the State Legislature and was laying the groundwork for the campaigns that would land him in the governor's office and lead him to the United States Senate. To see this plan through, he needed to prevent news of the black daughter, well known in the black community, from jumping into the white press.
When Ms. Washington-Williams said she wanted to go college, Mr. Thurmond naturally suggested South Carolina State, the segregated black college whose budget he would later control as governor. As a state official, he could visit there without fear of being outed. He ensured Ms. Washington-Williams' silence by manipulating her emotionally — and funneling to her the envelopes full of cash that allowed her to pay the tuition.
Ms. Washington-Williams sees the meetings and cash transactions as proof of affection. But while doling out the money, Mr. Thurmond sometimes asked how she felt about having to keep their relationship secret and how she was holding up under pressure from reporters who had gotten wind of the truth. As an abandoned child, Ms. Washington-Williams made an understandable calculation; she decided that a fraction of a father who met her in back rooms but disowned her in public was preferable to no father at all.
Since Mr. Thurmond's black daughter came forward to claim him, his descendants have been fretting about how people look at them in church — and whether they will be invited to the right parties. The tragedy of this case played out in the life of a needy child who was abandoned by her father and then misused for political purposes. If the Thurmonds are looking for something to be ashamed of, this is it.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company