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updated 1/4/2004 5:34:49 PM ET 2004-01-04T22:34:49

No one knows for sure that it was rape.

In fact, they barely mention the girl at all, just some vague reference to a "relationship" that resulted in a baby girl named Essie Mae.  What is known of the mother is this: Carrie Butler was 15 and worked as a maid in Strom Thurmond's parents' house. Strom Thurmond hailed from one of Edgefield, South Carolina's most prominent homes, run by a well-connected lawyer who once killed a man.

She was from Edgefield's legendarily impoverished Black part of town and was poor even by Negro Edgefield standards – so poor, in fact, that when Strom's baby came, she couldn't even afford to clothe or feed her. While Strom, who lived to the ripe old age of 100 – dying just this past June – was just beginning to make a name for himself as a staunch segregationist, Carrie Butler died in poverty and pain at the young age of 38.

The real story
For most of the media, that's the end of that part of the story and the real questions have to do with Thurmond's political legacy as in, how could a man with a staunch segregationist history have fathered a child with a Black girl?

Answer: She was in reach.

What happened to Carrie Butler and countless other Black women at the hands of White men -- who also didn't acknowledge their brutish actions or their offspring -- is the real story. But, then again, putting a face on Carrie Butler would mean putting a face on a part of American history that few people want to see, a part of history that dates back to slavery.

"It is disturbing that Ms. [Essie Mae] Washington-Williams' mother has dropped out of the story. The emphasis has been on [Strom Thurmond's] lifelong connection to the daughter, as if this is supposed to make him responsible," says Tricia Rose, chairwoman of the Department of American Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz and author of "Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy."

"She was 15 at the time and institutionally vulnerable and economically and socially vulnerable, and that was driven by her race and gender," Rose continues. "The fact that it is not at the center of the story is a sign of the deep denial and unconscious response that this nation has to this part of the nation's history."

Criteria for Rape
Gail Wyatt, a sex therapist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at UCLA and the author of "Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives," agreed.

"It is very interesting that the media picked this story up and promoted the idea that the family had worked it out, and she had been acknowledged and that was the end of it. What doesn't get discussed is that this is a woman who was underage, working for a family and he was five years older, and it meets the criteria for rape.

"Whether it was rape, we don't know. But how can you have a relationship with someone who pays your salary? Free will is not free if someone has the strings to your survival.Consensual sex is when you have free will to engage in a sexual act or multiple sexual acts and you understand the consequences of that behavior, and you have the ability to say 'yes' or 'no' without fear of reprisal or negative consequences.

"Working as a maid in the home of one of the county's most prominent families, Carrie Butler would not have been in a position to say 'no' to anything. And while we don't know exactly what went on in the Thurmond house nearly eight decades ago, the clues lie in the history of this country and, especially, the history of Edgefield, S.C.

Edgefield has long been a mean place for Blacks. Known for its violent, murderous reputation, resentful Whites before the Civil War scratched out a living on cotton-exhausted soil and bullied each other as well as the local African Americans. Far from lukewarm in the fight to keep Blacks in captivity, Edgefield was a hotbed of activity for slavers. County fathers pushed for succession from the United States and nurtured Confederate leaders in its bosom. Things hadn't changed much by the time Strom eyed Carrie in the mid-1920s.

Terror zone
Black Americans in the Edgefield and South Carolina of the 1920s lived in terror from an entrenched, violent Ku Klux Klan. South Carolina had 156 lynchings between the 1880s and mid-century. In addition, the state reveled in its practice of segregating the races through so-called Jim Crow laws.

Public places were strictly segregated; Blacks and Whites were forbidden to marry and Whites vowed to shut down their public schools rather than let a Black child attend. Strom Thurmond was soon at the head of the parade, railing against race mixing of any kind. Yet, Black women, especially the defenseless domestic worker, were seen as easy prey for countless White men (even those with legendary hatred of Black people).

"Strom Thurmond isn't the point. He was part of a coming of age ritual" of having sex with the help, Rose says. "How many children were born under similar circumstances?"

A legendary womanizer, Thurmond was known even into his 90s as a groper of women. At age 66, he married a 22-year-old beauty queen and fathered several children, even as he continued to feel up women who wandered into his personal space. Imagine, then, Thurmond at his prime at 22 facing off against a 15-year-old girl dependent on the dollars she earned cleaning his family's house.

Relationship?
It would have been in this atmosphere that some in the media would have us believe that a "relationship" occurred between Strom Thurmond and Carrie Butler and out of that affair came a daughter that he felt something for.

With both Carrie Butler and Strom Thurmond dead, we'll never know the truth of what happened between them and can only lean on history as our guide. And on a few of the tidbits Thurmond dropped along the way such as the time he hinted at Essie Mae's existence to conservative Black columnist Armstrong Williams.

"You know, I have deep roots in the Black community…deep roots," he whispered to Williams one day. "You've heard the rumors." When Williams asked if the rumors were true, Ol' Strom winked salaciously and cackled: "I've had a fulfilling life."

One doubts that Carrie Butler, if given the chance, would have said the same thing about having Thurmond's baby, giving her away so she could be fed and enduring years of whispers and gossip. And though Essie Mae Washington-Williams has said many words in recent weeks about her relationship with her father, fulfilling isn't one of them.

No one knows for sure that what happened between Carrie Butler and Strom Thurmond was rape. But it definitely was no relationship.

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