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Thurmond family confirms daughter

After decades of denials, the family of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) acknowledged Monday a claim made by a 78-year-old Los Angeles schoolteacher that she is the senator's mixed-race daughter.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

After decades of denials, the family of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) acknowledged yesterday a claim made by a 78-year-old Los Angeles schoolteacher that she is the senator's mixed-race daughter, a charge that had dogged her throughout her otherwise quiet life and shadowed Thurmond during his public career as a leading voice of racial segregation.

"As J. Strom Thurmond has passed away and cannot speak for himself, the Thurmond family acknowledges Ms. Essie Mae Washington-Williams' claim to her heritage," the lawyer for the Thurmond estate, J. Mark Taylor, said in a brief statement in Columbia, S.C. "We hope this acknowledgment will bring closure for Ms. Williams."

Taylor told reporters he spoke for the Thurmond family but refused to answer questions about the lifelong relationship between Thurmond and Williams. She disclosed to The Washington Post in an interview last week that she had received regular cash payments from the senator since college. When the senator's health began to fail, an unnamed close relative stepped in as the conduit for payments, Williams said. Thurmond, whose political life spanned 75 years, died in June at 100.

The quiet acknowledgement of Williams's claims comes as her lawyer, Frank K. Wheaton of Los Angeles, prepares for a Wednesday news conference in Columbia in which he plans to reveal documents and other details about the elaborate secrecy surrounding the relationship.

Wheaton said that when he told his client of the family's acknowledgment yesterday, "Ms. Williams shed a sigh of relief. She said, 'I'm happy and very much surprised.' " Wheaton added that Williams may not release her alleged evidence because of the announcement. "There may be no need," he said.

Williams had said that, at the urging of her children, she wanted to disclose the relationship to "bring closure" to the issue during her lifetime. Wheaton insisted that she had no plans to make a claim against the senator's estate, which is now being settled in probate court.

But comments made by Wheaton and his legal associates in South Carolina had suggested other, more volatile legal strategies, including the filing of a paternity suit and a call for DNA testing, if the family challenged her claim. Wheaton had said they would go to "whatever extent" necessary to prove paternity, and in recent days, he dodged reporters' questions about whether those tactics could include a request for exhumation of the senator's remains, buried at a family plot in South Carolina. Williams's lawyers said exhumation might not be required for DNA evidence since Thurmond had regularly submitted blood samples for medical treatment and he has three surviving children by his widow, Nancy Moore Thurmond.

'Nothing to say'
The risk of family embarrassment included possible political impact on the career of J. Strom Thurmond Jr., his oldest son, who, with his father's help and over objections about his lack of experience, became the state's youngest U.S. attorney in 2001. Thurmond Jr. is widely considered the heir to his father's vast political network, and speculation has abounded in the state about the son's bright political future as a congressman or a U.S. senator. Thurmond Jr. declined to comment when contacted yesterday at the U.S. attorney's office in Columbia.

"I have nothing to say," said Thurmond Jr.

Wheaton said he also intended to name several high-powered people who knew about the secret relationship, including U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Perry Jr. of Columbia, who Thurmond in 1976 helped make the first black appointed to a federal judgeship from the Deep South. Perry acknowledged to The Post that he is a longtime friend of Williams. Perry said they briefly dated when they were college students, at a time when Thurmond visited the campus to see her despite his 1948 campaign as a Dixiecrat segregationist candidate for president.

But Perry, 79, said of Thurmond, "I never raised the subject with him, nor he with me. There was never any acknowledgement of her existence or of my relationship with her." Perry was a noted civil rights attorney and counsel to the state and national NAACP before his elevation to the bench. After four years on the U.S. Court of Military Appeals (now known as U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces), President Jimmy Carter named him to a U.S. district judgeship. The federal courthouse in Columbia is named in his honor.

Williams told The Post she had "nothing to do" with Thurmond's role in the historic decision to name Perry to the then three-judge military appeals court, a move widely hailed as a sign of Thurmond's willingness to reform his racial views. South Carolina's black leaders during the 1940s had publicly condemned him as a "devil" and "snake" for his segregationist presidential platform. But over time, Thurmond courted the state's emerging black electorate with a targeted campaign of favors and legislative initiatives.

The news of Williams's statements hit like a thunderbolt in South Carolina, where Thurmond is viewed as a political idol who trained many of the new wave of Republican leaders dominating state politics there. Reactions varied.

Thurmond's legacy
"This has been rumored for years and years, and everyone understood that Senator Thurmond had cared for and supported financially this daughter and, unlike Washington, these sorts of things aren't necessarily matters of huge public debate and concern," said Dick Harpootlian, a former state Democratic chairman and an attorney in Columbia. "The Thurmond family today did the decent thing acknowledging this daughter and hopefully that will put a rest to it."

The news is unlikely to change anyone's opinion about Thurmond and his legacy, according to Don Fowler, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party who knew Thurmond for 40 years.

"People who loved Strom will say, 'That's just ol' Strom,' " Fowler said. "And the people who hated Strom will just say, 'That's the son of a bitch.'

"If word of Thurmond's unacknowledged daughter had come out in the later years of his career, he probably could have weathered the scandal, Fowler said. Not so in his youth.

"There was a time that, had it been known, it would have destroyed his political career," said Fowler, who said he had never heard the woman's name until it was published in The Post. "It would have been very damaging to him. It was inconsistent with his public image."

Rumors about Thurmond's fathering of a black child in his early life had circulated in South Carolina since at least the 1940s. But when confronted over the years, Thurmond had maintained a stoic silence, saying the question was too undignified to warrant comment. His office had described Williams as a "family friend" and conceded in 1992 that she occasionally visited him in Washington.

Williams, for her part, had described Thurmond as a "close family friend" when first confronted in Los Angeles by a reporter in 1984. She spoke glowingly of the "wonderful things" Thurmond had done for blacks in South Carolina and across the nation.

Last week, Williams said her earlier statements had been a cover, part of an agreement she made with the senator to keep quiet in return for decades of financial support.

Thurmond's family, including Nancy Thurmond, had denied knowledge of a relationship. Over the years, his three sisters had angrily called the allegation untrue and scandalous.

Williams, however, said that Thurmond's sister Mary played a role in his first payment to her family, made in 1941 after Williams for the first time had been introduced to Thurmond by her mother. Williams's mother, Carrie Butler, was dying of kidney disease and wanted the girl to meet Thurmond. They had a brief discussion at the Thurmond family law office in Edgefield, S.C., according to Williams.

The next day, Williams said, Mary Thurmond came to Butler's house in the segregated section of Edgefield and gave the mother money "to help with expenses," Williams said. She left town soon afterward, returning to Coatesville, Pa., where she had been raised by a maternal aunt, she said.

The payment was the first in a series of cash gifts that extended over Thurmond's lifetime, according to Williams. She visited Washington at least once a year to see Thurmond and said he gave her money during those visits, which were arranged by his Senate staff.

In Thurmond's last years, when his health was failing, Williams said a close Thurmond relative contacted her and described in a letter how the payments would continue. She declined to release the three-page letter that explained the details of the financial arrangement.

Wheaton said Williams was reluctant to identify the relative out of hope that the family would step forward and "do the right thing."

Staff writers Joe Stephens and Mary Pat Flaherty, research editor Margot Williams and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report, which was supplemented by wire service reports.