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Woman claims Thurmond as father

A 78-year-old retired teacher said she is breaking a lifetime of silence to announce that she is the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of former U.S. senator James Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), once the nation's leading segregationist.
Former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was once the nation's leading segregationists.Win McNamee / Reuters file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A 78-year-old retired Los Angeles schoolteacher said she is breaking a lifetime of silence to announce that she is the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of former U.S. senator James Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), once the nation's leading segregationist. In an interview, the woman said that Thurmond privately acknowledged her as his daughter and provided financial support since 1941.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams described her claims in a lengthy telephone interview last week, saying she protected Thurmond because of their mutual "deep respect" and her fears that disclosure would embarrass her and harm his political career. Thurmond, who died in June at age 100, said late in life through his office that Williams was a friend.

Williams, whose mother worked as a maid in the Thurmond family home as a teenager, has long been the subject of widespread speculation and has been pursued by journalists seeking her story for two decades. She always denied that she is Thurmond's daughter.

"I want to bring closure to this," said Williams, who plans to hold a news conference Wednesday in Columbia, S.C. "It is a part of history."

Williams did not provide definitive proof that she is Thurmond's daughter. Her attorney, Frank R. Wheaton of Los Angeles, said she is ready to submit to DNA tests if challenged by the Thurmond family. Williams said she has documents to validate her claim, including cashier's check stubs, mementos from Thurmond and a letter from an intermediary who delivered money from the senator. She declined to name the intermediary, citing privacy concerns.

Wheaton, of the Los Angeles firm of Scolinos, Sheldon and Nevell, said Williams will "go to whatever lengths we must" to prove her story. As a sample of her documents, she provided The Post with a copy of a 1998 Thurmond letter thanking her "for the nice Father's Day note you sent me." She said she did not want to release additional documents at this time.

Williams's claim comes as the attorney for the Thurmond estate, J. Mark Taylor, is overseeing settlement of the senator's estate in Columbia, S.C. Thurmond bequeathed cash and other items, including clothing and real estate holdings, to his three surviving children with estranged wife Nancy Moore Thurmond.

"We are not seeking to challenge the wishes of the late senator with regard to his estate," said Wheaton, who has been joined by Columbia attorney Glenn Walters in representing Williams. "Let's be emphatically clear: We are not looking for money. We are merely seeking closure by way of the truth for Essie Mae Washington-Williams."

Taylor said he has had no contact with Williams. Thurmond's will did not acknowledge Williams or her heirs. Williams has struggled financially over the years, and in 2001, court records show, she declared personal bankruptcy.

Strom Jr. did not return a phone call seeking comment. In interviews over the years, Thurmond's sisters and staff have repeatedly said that Williams was only a family friend.

Williams said she met with Thurmond and received money at least once a year in sessions arranged by his Senate staff. In recent years, as the senator's health declined, she said, financial assistance was passed through a prearranged conduit, a Thurmond relative in South Carolina. Williams's attorney declined to specify the amounts of money she received, saying that information would be provided later.

Williams's account resurrects one of the oldest stories in 20th-century southern political folklore. Over the years, Thurmond had called the allegation that he fathered a mixed-race child too unseemly to warrant comment. Noted political writer Robert Sherrill described an alleged daughter without providing a name in a 1968 book. The Post identified Williams by her maiden name in 1992, in a lengthy account of Williams's relationship with Thurmond. The article reported that "both Thurmond and the supposed daughter have denied that he is her father, and no one has provided evidence that he is."

Recently, Williams said media pressure has intensified, with interview requests from every major television network. She declined, consistently calling Thurmond a "family friend" who had merely provided her with financial assistance.

"I did not want anybody to know I had an illegitimate father," said Williams, who has four grown children. "My children convinced me to tell the truth. I want to finally answer all of these questions ... that have been following me for 50 or 60 years."

Williams will hold her news conference 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Adam's Mark hotel in Columbia. Two blocks south, a Confederate flag decorates a Civil War memorial on the grounds of the state Capitol, and there is a statue of "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, the U.S. senator who taught Thurmond how to court voters when he was only 6 years old.

Humble beginningsEssie Mae was born Oct. 12, 1925, to a 16-year-old, unmarried mother, Carrie Butler, who cleaned house in the Thurmonds' grand two-story home on the outskirts of Edgefield, S.C. Butler's neighbors along the unpaved road in the impoverished section of Edgefield helped feed and clothe the child, according to interviews with local residents. Strictly segregated, Edgefield still basked in Civil War pride. Virtually every white male had left town to join the rebel cause.

In 1925, Thurmond was 22 and living with his parents, Edgefield's most prominent citizens. He had a job as a teacher and high school coach, although he inexplicably left town to sell Florida real estate, according to a newspaper account. Upon his return, he set out to study law under the tutelage of his father, William, a failed political candidate who was Tillman's chief operative.

Butler's sister, named Essie, bundled up her namesake when the child was 6 months old and took the baby to live with a married aunt, Mary Washington, in Coatesville, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb. The Washingtons gave the baby their last name and reared her in a shotgun-style house near Coatesville's bustling steel mill, which employed many southern blacks who had migrated north. Coatesville in the 1940s had an integrated high school where, according to the school yearbook, Essie Mae graduated with honors.

She said she first met Thurmond around 1941 when she was 16. She had returned to Edgefield for a visit. Her mother was suffering from a untreatable kidney disease and insisted on introducing her to her father, Williams said. Together, they walked the short distance to the Thurmond family law office. By then, Thurmond had been Edgefield County's school superintendent, studied law under his father, served in the state Senate and won election by the Legislature to a traveling circuit judgeship.

In a meeting lasting 20 to 30 minutes, she said, Thurmond called her a "very lovely daughter." "I was very happy. I knew I had a father somewhere, and it was wonderful to meet him."

The next day, Williams said, one of Thurmond's sisters visited the Butler home and "brought some funds to help us out." The teenager returned to Coatesville. Her mother died soon afterward of kidney failure at 38.

Williams said she saw Thurmond again a few years later when he stopped at a Philadelphia hotel on his way back from fighting in World War II. Her aunt Mary took her to meet with him, and she said he again gave the family money. After her 1945 high school graduation, Williams said, she briefly studied nursing in Harlem but disliked city living. She contacted Thurmond for help.

By then, Thurmond had been elected governor, a Democrat who was gaining national attention for his progressive policies, including funding for the education of black children and a tough stance against racial lynching. Williams said Thurmond suggested that she enroll in 1946 at the all-black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg and arranged to cover her expenses.

A quiet business major, Williams fueled campus gossip after the governor arrived in his official car to visit with her. Then-college president M.F. Whittaker arranged for the governor to meet with the student in his office. Again, Thurmond gave her money, Williams said.

For Thurmond, the gossip generated by his visit had lasting effects.

After several years as a liberal governor, Thurmond did an about-face in 1948 and spearheaded a southern states' revolt against the national Democratic Party and its presidential nominee, Harry S. Truman. Thurmond became the Dixiecrat presidential candidate, espousing total racial segregation.

As rumors of Essie Mae's relationship with Thurmond filtered through the South, leaders of an emerging civil rights movement sought to use the student as political ammunition. They arranged to secretly photograph her on campus so that the pictures could be held against Thurmond, according to interviews done in the 1980s with civil rights leaders and the photographer who shot the pictures.

Williams said she and Thurmond "never talked politics," although she did question him gently about segregationist comments that had upset some of her friends. "He said that's just the way things were. That was his life. He was pleasing his supporters," she said.

Thurmond never publicly apologized for his Dixiecrat campaign, saying years later that the campaign was misinterpreted. It was about states' rights, he said, not about race.

While visiting Columbia during the late 1940s, Williams said, the governor arranged for his chauffeur-driven car to bring her to his office. Thurmond by then had married Jean Crouch, who popped her head into his office during the meeting, which soon became fodder for gossip.

Williams said that Thurmond lectured her on the importance of exercise and proper diet, his lifelong obsessions. Then, she said, he asked a memorable question.

Williams said Thurmond asked her, "How does it feel to have your father as governor and not be able to claim him?' " She said she told the governor it felt just fine.

Seeking financial boostIn college, Essie Mae married Julius T. Williams, a handsome law student from Savannah, Ga. After her marriage, Williams wrote at least one letter in 1950 to outgoing Gov. Thurmond, acknowledging receipt of a loan.

The couple settled in Savannah, where Julius Williams briefly led the local NAACP and handled some civil rights lawsuits. The couple had four children. When she had money problems, Williams said, she always knew that Thurmond would help.

After an embarrassing defeat in his 1950 primary challenge to Sen. Olin Johnston, Thurmond took a political hiatus, then reemerged in 1954 in another Democratic Party revolt, becoming the first person elected to the U.S. Senate by write-in ballot.

By 1964, Thurmond had been in the Senate for 10 years. Williams's need for financial aid increased dramatically when Julius died. At the time, Thurmond was leading a public fight against civil rights bills from the Senate floor, including the staging of the nation's longest filibuster.

Raising her children on death benefits, Williams turned to Thurmond, who said that "he would help me until the children were grown."

Thurmond, who lost his first wife to a brain tumor in 1960, had four children — two sons and two daughters, like Williams — with his second wife, Nancy Moore Thurmond. (His older daughter, Nancy, died at age 22 after she was hit by a drunken driver in 1993.) Williams, who never remarried, resettled in Los Angeles, where she taught for years in a vocational education center. She raised her children in an attractive, low-slung house with a swimming pool. When her younger son, Ronald James — she said his middle name is meant to honor her father — decided to study medicine, Williams said Thurmond helped him secure a free medical education with the U.S. Navy.

Regular meetingsAt least once a year, Williams traveled to Washington, where she said she met with Thurmond in his Senate office. Thurmond's secretary handled the bookings, Williams said. Thurmond always welcomed her, she said, once proudly escorting her to see the Senate in session. His staff grew accustomed to her visits, she said, and at the end of each trip, Thurmond gave her money.

"That's why I would go," she said. Thurmond did not sign checks or send money by mail, she said, but preferred to give cash or cashier's checks. She said he did send signed photographs, notes and other memorabilia, including the "thank you" letter for her Father's Day card.

Williams said Thurmond also alerted her when he planned to be in California so that she could visit him. She said she introduced him to her children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

In response to occasional media inquiries about Williams, the Thurmond camp softened its stance over the years, eventually confirming that Williams visited the office from time to time.

In 1972, the senator exploded in anger when an Edgefield newspaper editor and longtime enemy, W.W. Mims, printed a front-page headline that Thurmond had sired "colored offspring." The headline offered no supporting evidence, and Thurmond called it "too scandalous" to warrant comment.

By the early 1990s, Thurmond's staff conceded to a Penthouse magazine writer that the senator had frequent visits in Washington from his friend "Essie Williams." It was the first time her name had appeared in print in connection with Thurmond. The magazine described her as Thurmond's alleged black daughter.

The Post article in 1992 cited a brief letter Williams sent Thurmond in Oct. 31, 1947, acknowledging receipt of a loan. A second letter from Williams to Thurmond on June 29, 1950, contained a request for $75. The letters were discovered buried among thousands of pages of documents in Thurmond's gubernatorial papers archived at the University of South Carolina.

Williams over the years flatly denied that Thurmond was her father. When first interviewed in 1984, she said he was no more than "a close friend of my family — a wonderful man who's helped a lot of people." She said Thurmond had provided financial assistance but said it was "not a lot."

Today, Williams says she had wanted only to protect Thurmond and spare herself embarrassment because she had not told her children about the relationship.

She began to realize that her story is "a part of history," she said, akin to the controversy over slave Sally Hemmings's alleged sexual relationship with Thomas Jefferson. She said she decided to reveal it before she dies. "African Americans should hear it. Everybody should hear it. They deserve to know the details," she said.

Several years ago, unable to travel to Washington because of bad knees, Williams sent her daughter Wanda on her behalf to meet with Thurmond. In his late 90s and hard of hearing, the senator welcomed her after reading a letter of introduction and remarked, "You look just like your mother!" Wanda Williams Terry said in a telephone interview last week. Terry said Thurmond's longtime chief of staff, Robert "Duke" Short, told her how much he respected Williams and "how she had managed all of these years to go without saying anything."

Reached Friday at his Virginia lobbying firm, Short said in a brief interview, "I doubt I would have said that."

In December 2002, Thurmond turned 100, and Williams considered flying to Washington to attend a huge birthday celebration. By then Thurmond was enfeebled, living full time at Walter Reed hospital. The event became controversial when incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) expressed his view that the nation would have been better off if Thurmond had been elected during his segregationist Dixiecrat campaign. Amid the ensuing furor, Lott stepped down from the leadership post.

As Thurmond's health deteriorated, more and more reporters began seeking her out, she said, some camping outside her home and hounding her on the telephone. She refused to confirm the allegation.

In Thurmond's later years, Williams said one of his relatives wrote her friendly letters explaining how the financial relationship would be managed. The largest payment came in the late 1990s, she said.

After Thurmond's death, his will valued his estate at $200,000. He gave the largest cash amount — $50,000 — to his surviving daughter, Julie, and split other assets and his collection of clothing between his sons, Paul and Strom Jr. In 1989, when Thurmond had a declared net worth of $2 million, he began placing assets in trust accounts for his children, according to news accounts. Taylor said those estate accounts were separate legal instruments and were not included in Thurmond's will.

After Thurmond died, Williams hired Wheaton as her counsel and decided to write a letter to Strom Jr., who — with his father's help — won appointment to be U.S. attorney for South Carolina. The letter expressed the hope, Wheaton said, that Williams would not have to make a claim against the estate and that the matter could be "resolved among family."

Meanwhile, Williams said, she watched Thurmond's elaborate funeral service in Columbia, which included a flag-draped casket and a riderless horse, on a video that someone taped for her.

"I didn't go," she said bluntly. "I never really felt that close to his family."

Research editor Margot Williams and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this article.