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Published: Saturday, 12/20/2003

A new view of Thurmond

BY ROSE RUSSELL

At first I had an acerbic view about the nation s noted segregationist who at 22 fathered a child with his family s 16-year-old black maid.

How could U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond remain a staunch separatist of the races when he was the father of a bi-racial daughter?

Why did this daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, never publicly challenge the best-known segregationist?

The late senator was 100 when he died last June and his survivors have not denied Ms. Washington-Williams. Their acceptance has saved her the trouble of proving that the senator was her father. She was prepared to undergo a DNA test.

As an infant, Essie s mother s family cared for her, and an aunt and uncle in a Philadelphia suburb reared her.

The retired educator, who lives in California, was a teenager in 1941 when her mother introduced her to her father, and from then on, he provided her financial support. Her mother later died from kidney failure.

Mr. Thurmond s visits to see Essie at historically black South Carolina State University were no secret. He went to the Orangeburg campus in a limousine. She also holds a master s from the University of Southern California.

Ms. Washington-Williams often visited the senator, but refused to admit that he was her father out of respect for his career. I was conflicted about that at the outset, and couldn t decide whether to call her gracious or to give her a more discourteous label.

But I saw Ms. Washington-Williams overcome with emotion the other day in a televised broadcast in which she announced that she was finally free of the burden of remaining quiet. I learned that the senator counseled her and was genuinely interested in her wellbeing, and that the two had a warm, friendly relationship.

As one of her generation, Ms. Washington-Williams did what she believed was right by not going public about her origins.

Besides, she had nothing to gain from revealing that the longest serving senator was her father. Many whites and blacks knew or suspected that Essie Mae was Strom Thurmond s daughter, and while he never openly acknowledged her, he didn t quite deny her either.

So why didn t Ms. Washington-Williams challenge him? Was she the reason he occasionally favored issues of black interest, such as more funding for black schools, an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1991, and the King holiday in 1986?

Was she one reason that graduate and law school programs were established at SCSU? The school s web site states that the programs were created to keep black students from attending the University of South Carolina. As a rising politician, Mr. Thurmond was governor of South Carolina from 1947 to 1951.

Yet while some of the late senator s supporters and critics will never change their minds about him, in all fairness, history must now soften some of its cynical views of Senator Thurmond. In the final analysis, he cannot be labeled completely callous.

Sure, we can still criticize the man for not being more forthright about Ms. Washington-Williams. It was not right, but he was only one of many white men who took advantage of black females at the time.

And it s easy to criticize her for remaining quiet. But her visible relief from finally being able to talk openly about what was family business for decades at least changed my mind.

Now, there might never be long-lasting friendships between Ms. Washington-Williams and her family and the Thurmonds.

That they have not denied her is to their credit. What a lesson for the descendants of Thomas Jefferson who deny that he cavorted with slave Sally Heming.



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