Senator Strom Thurmond’s Biracial Daughter Is Revealed Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

U.S. senator Strom Thurmond, a long-time proponent of racial segregation, had a daughter named Essie Mae Washington-Williams with an African American woman in 1925, a revelation made public on the CBS television news show 60 Minutes in late 2003. Correspondent Dan Rather interviewed Washington-Williams, closing the book on decades-long rumors that Thurmond had a biracial child out of wedlock.

Summary of Event

After seventy-eight years of silence, a biracial former school teacher named Essie Mae Washington-Williams announced in a television interview with CBS News correspondent Dan Rather that she was the daughter of conservative Republican segregationist Strom Thurmond, a longtime U.S. senator from South Carolina. Her mother was Carrie Butler, an African American woman. Thurmond’s reputation as a segregationist made the news both startling and fascinating, although rumors about his paternity of a biracial daughter had existed for decades. [kw]Thurmond’s Biracial Daughter Is Revealed, Senator Strom (Dec. 17, 2003) 60 Minutes[sixty minutes];Strom Thurmond[Thurmond] Thurmond, Strom Butler, Carrie Washington-Williams, Essie Mae Rather, Dan 60 Minutes[sixty minutes];Strom Thurmond[Thurmond] Thurmond, Strom Butler, Carrie Washington-Williams, Essie Mae Rather, Dan [g]United States;Dec. 17, 2003: Senator Strom Thurmond’s Biracial Daughter Is Revealed[03360] [c]Radio and television;Dec. 17, 2003: Senator Strom Thurmond’s Biracial Daughter Is Revealed[03360] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 17, 2003: Senator Strom Thurmond’s Biracial Daughter Is Revealed[03360] [c]Families and children;Dec. 17, 2003: Senator Strom Thurmond’s Biracial Daughter Is Revealed[03360] [c]Racism;Dec. 17, 2003: Senator Strom Thurmond’s Biracial Daughter Is Revealed[03360]

Washington-Williams agreed to be interviewed by Rather because she wished to put the decades of speculation to rest and to clarify for her own children their family legacy. According to Washington-Williams, her mother was a sixteen-year-old maid in the Thurmond household during the 1920’s. The future Senator Thurmond was twenty-two years old and soon to be a lawyer. She was conceived in Edgefield, South Carolina, where the Thurmonds lived and where her mother worked. She also revealed that she was born in 1925 in Aiken, South Carolina. At age six months, she was taken to Pennsylvania to be raised by an aunt, Mary Washington, and her husband.

Washington-Williams knew that she had “a dad somewhere,” although she did not know his identity. Her mother was the only person who knew the real story about her father. In 1941, when Washington-Williams was sixteen years old, her mother, by then living in Pennsylvania, arranged for her to finally meet her father, who by this time was an attorney about to go into the armed forces. Washington-Williams, who said her mother never told her that her father was white, described her meeting with Thurmond in his law office as “very nice” and that he seemed “glad” to meet her. They talked about a variety of subjects, including what she hoped to do with her life.

After their initial meeting, Thurmond and Washington-Williams stayed in contact. His political career blossomed. He was governor of South Carolina while she was a student at South Carolina State College (later University), an all-black college in Orangeburg that Thurmond recommended she attend. As governor, he regularly visited colleges around the state. In 1947, he visited South Carolina State and met with his daughter but kept secret that she was his child. According to Washington-Williams, it was common knowledge among the black people in Edgefield that she was Thurmond’s child. Inasmuch as the climate of the American South before the 1950’s accepted that white men and black women had relationships—some consensual, some not—there was no outcry, no backlash, no repercussions for either Thurmond or Washington-Williams.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Thurmond contributed to his daughter’s financial needs while she was in college and until she married. He did not automatically send or give her money personally, but funds were always available for tuition and room and board. Many have speculated that Thurmond’s financial support amounted to nothing but “hush money,” a means to keep her silent about being his daughter and thus to shield the up-and-coming conservative politician from scandal. Washington-Williams insisted she saw no advantage in revealing her relationship to Thurmond, and that she did not want to hurt his political career. She said that in spite of his bigoted, segregationist policies, she believed he had done many good things for her and for all black people in South Carolina. She said that Ebony magazine once sent a reporter for a story about her when she was attending South Carolina State. She refused to be interviewed for what she called a family friendship.

As a strict segregationist, Thurmond fought against racial and social progress, including school desegregation. In what was the longest filibuster in Senate history—24 hours and 18 minutes—he worked to defeat civil rights legislation. He tried to derail the nomination of Thurgood Marshall to be the first African American justice of the United States. To thwart President Harry S. Truman, Harry S. Truman’s plan to integrate the armed forces, he ran for president in 1948 as a Dixiecrat. His own hometown newspaper (in Edgefield) ran a front-page story in 1972 that called him “unprincipled” for naming himself a “devout segregationist” while fathering “colored offspring.”

Washington-Williams insists that her father did many good things: He served meritoriously in World War II, his election to the Senate in 1954 was by an unheard-of write-in vote, he recommended a black man for a federal judgeship, and he was the first senator to hire a black administrative aide. Washington-Williams said that despite the controversial views about him, he was “very good” to her and was “a great friend.”

As for Thurmond, he neither confirmed nor denied that he had a child with a black woman. He usually brushed the questions aside. When he visited Washington-Williams while she was in college, the two would meet in the college president’s office. Some witnesses claimed to have seen them sitting together outside in the center court of the college.

After college, Washington-Williams kept in contact with her father, by this time a U.S. senator, mostly through annual trips either to his Columbia, South Carolina, home or to his Senate office in Washington, D.C. At those times, he would give her money to help her financially, always warning her to be careful. His Senate office secretary arranged their appointments and must have known that there was some familial relationship between the two, although she never discussed that knowledge.

After his daughter married, Thurmond discontinued his financial support, except in cases of emergency. She taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for thirty years, beginning in the late 1960’s. In 1964, when Washington-Williams’s husband died at the age of forty-five, Thurmond once again began helping her and her four children. He met the first of his grandchildren when the baby was only six months old. Washington-Williams, who was then living in Pennsylvania, had taken the baby to Washington, D.C., for a visit with Thurmond. Thurmond did not see the other three children, however, until they were in their teens.

Washington-Williams said she believed that Thurmond “cared something” about her, which made her feel better about their unorthodox relationship. Though never publicly acknowledging her as his daughter, he said at their first meeting, “Well, you look like one of my sisters” and added that she had cheekbones like those of“our family.”

By the time Thurmond died, he had slowed down considerably; he was one hundred years old. Washington-Williams, living in Los Angeles since the 1960’s, had stopped making annual trips to Washington, D.C., because of her own health issues. Even as his health deteriorated and death seemed imminent, Thurmond kept his biracial daughter a secret. Upon his death in June, 2003, Washington-Williams decided to tell her story, first in an interview with Rather that was broadcast on 60 Minutes on December 17, 2003. She also wrote Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond (2005), a book for her children, so that they would know the truth about their grandfather.

Impact

At the time of Washington-Williams’s birth and for decades after, the races were segregated in the American South. The Confederate way of life was still very much a reality. Consequently, the revelation that Thurmond, one of the most outspoken defenders of that way of life, had fathered a child with a black woman was scandalous, even as late as 2003, the year of his death. Thurmond built his political career on deception and secrecy. As the public learned of his hypocrisy, reactions ranged from no surprise to criticism of Washington-Williams for having kept quiet for so long, allowing a racist bigot to have a powerful political career while supporting his biracial daughter. 60 Minutes[sixty minutes];Strom Thurmond[Thurmond] Thurmond, Strom Butler, Carrie Washington-Williams, Essie Mae Rather, Dan

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bass, Jack, and Marilyn W. Thompson. Ol’ Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond. Atlanta: Longstreet, 1998. An anecdotal, unauthorized biography of Thurmond, the oldest and longest-serving senator of his time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond. New York: PublicAffairs, 2005. Discusses his affair with Carrie Butler and his secret relationship with his biracial daughter. Explores the contradictions of his life as a segregationist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Washington-Williams, Essie Mae, with William Stadiem. Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. New York: Regan Books, 2005. Describes Washington-Williams’s relationship with a generous, even affectionate father who was also a staunch segregationist. Details his support and encouragement even as he kept the relationship secret.

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