Essie Mae Washington-Williams: Scion of a Contradictory Icon

It’s time to Break It Down!

Essie Mae Washington-Williams is not a household name; she is not someone with whom most Americans are familiar.  That she died early this month probably resulted in far more attention than she would have desired.  For 78 of her 87 years, Mrs. Williams lived, in a sense, a shadowy existence.  Nothing really sinister; just by choice mostly, declining to reveal in totality, the full and complete dimensions of her famous heritage and lineage.

In December, 2003, Mrs. Williams decided to share, by entering into the public domain, a deeply personal secret of more than seven decades.Back home, in her native South Carolina, she went on record, telling an assembly of more than 250 reporters that she was the daughter of the legendary and recently deceased, Senator Strom Thurmond, South Carolina.

The history, accomplishments, and overarching legacy of Strom Thurman fill a virtual palette with factoids, many of them of the simply amazing variety.The list includes, but is not limited to:

·        He lived to be100 years old

·        He served 40years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves

·        He attained the rank of Major General (two stars)

·        He served inWorld War II and the Normandy Campaign

·        He was awarded the Legion of Merit (twice)

·        He was awarded theBronze Star with valor

·        He was awarded the Purple Heart

·        He was awarded the World War II Victory Medal

·        He was awardedEuropean-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal

·        He was awarded the Order of the Crown

·        He was awarded the Croix de Guerre (FrenchCross of War)

·        He served as the103rd Governor of South Carolina

·        He served as theU.S. Senator from South Carolinafor 48 years

·        He served asPresident Pro Tempore of the United States Senate for 6 years

·        He was the 1stPresident Pro Tempore Emeritus of the United States Senate; a  capacity he held for 2 years

·        He was the onlySenator to reach age 100 while still in office

·        He was the longest serving Dean of the U.S. Senate (14 years)

The Senator’s impressive resume of service and achievement aside, Thurmond was probably best known for his strident ideological posture.  To put it bluntly, Mr. Thurmond was an avowed segregationist for much of his enduring political career.  He ran for Presidentin 1948 as a member of the States Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrat).  He would go on to represent the State of South Carolina as a Senator, first as a Democrat beginning in 1954, then from 1964, as a RepublicanSenator Thurmond switchedParties because of his opposition to what he perceived as the liberalism of theDemocratic Party, its support for civil rights, and his support for the conservatism of Republican Presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater.

Due to his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, he conducted the longest filibuster ever by a lone Senator, 24 hours, 18 minutes, nonstop.  He would later oppose the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965.  TheSenator always insisted he was never a racist, but opposed excessive federal authority.  He was quoted saying that:

All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”

He attributed the movement for integration to Communist agitators.This would prove to be an interesting juxtaposition, for several reasons.  Starting in the 70’s, he moderated his position on race, yet, he continued defending his early segregationist campaigns on the basis of states’ rights in the context of Southern society at the time.  In other words, he never fully renounced his earlier viewpoints.

With that, we come back full-circle, to Essie Mae.  Six months after Thurmond’sdeath in 2003, it was revealed that at age 22, he had fathered a mixed-race daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, with his family’s maid, Carrie Butler, a 15-year-old black girl. Although Thurmond never publicly acknowledged Essie Mae, he paid for her education at a historically black college and passed other money to her for some time. His children by his marriage eventually acknowledged her.

So it is, as we traverse the second decade of the 21st Century, we are reminded in a post-mortem kind of way, that for all of Senator Thurmond’sspoken commitment to the tenets of separation and segregation; a sort of American Apartheid, in his personal, though down-low life, he fully embraced the principles of interracial harmony and mutual satisfaction (if you know what I mean).

In his own, totally irrational and indefensible way, the Senator undoubtedly rationalized he was doing an honorable thing.After all, he provided the wherewithal for his eldest child to attend college.  What more could she ask?  What more could anyone expect…of a man in his position?

On the other hand, Essie Mae assumed the persona of a fatherless child.  While her siblings enjoyed the complete array of rights and privileges accorded to the children of a Senator, step-sister (in every sense of the term) Essie Mae was neither seen, nor heard.  In 2005 she published a book she wrote with William Stadiem; Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond, in which she explored among other things the various aspects of her dislocation, based upon her mixed-heritage.  It was nominated for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

While Mrs. Washington-Williams’ story in not unique in the Americantapestry, it is truly sad.  I am reminded of the Thomas JeffersonSally Hemings saga; yet another tale of American irony.

In Psalms 90:10 (NRSV), we are told:

The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they soon gone, and we fly away.”

Mrs. Washington spent, for all intents and purposes, a lifetime shrouded in humiliating secrecy, when she had done nothing wrong.  She had merely had the misfortune to born in an era when the circumstances of her birth were not validated by the society in which she lived.  She suffered the additional indignity of knowing that everything the father who sired her stood for was antithetical to inclusion and full participation in the broader world.

I’m done; holla back!

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