The 78-year-old daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond and a black maid said Wednesday that now that she has come forward to disclose her heritage, she is finally at peace.
At a news conference in her native South Carolina, Essie Mae Washington-Williams said she did not come forward earlier because she didn’t want to jeopardize Thurmond’s political career and family. “Throughout his life and mine, we respected each other. ... I was sensitive about his well-being and his career.”
“I am not bitter. I am not angry. In fact, there is a great sense of peace that has come over me in the past year,” she said. “I feel as though a great weight has been lifted. I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I feel completely free.”
Williams, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Los Angeles, announced last weekend she is the illegitimate daughter of Thurmond, a former segregationist, and Carrie Butler, a maid for the Thurmond family. Thurmond was 22 and Butler was 16 when Williams was born in Aiken, S.C., in 1925.
“My husband and I were blessed with four wonderful children — all of whom are tremendously successful,” Williams said. “I have 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Their lives are meaningful and important in American history.
“There are many stories like Sally Hemings’ and mine,” she said, referring to the slave of Thomas Jefferson’s who many believe was his mistress. “The unfortunate measure is that not everyone knows about these stories that helped to make America what it is today.”
Williams was raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt and uncle, seeing her mother sporadically. She met Thurmond when she was 16.
“I knew him beyond his public image,” Williams said. “I certainly never did like the idea that he was a segregationist, but there was nothing I could do about it. That was his life.”
However, Williams said, Thurmond never denied she was his daughter and gave her money throughout her life. She also said there were others who knew. “All of them on his staff knew exactly who I was,” she said.
Thurmond’s family members said Monday they acknowledge Williams’ claim, and the former senator’s oldest son, U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr., said he would like to meet his half-sister and start a relationship.
Williams said Wednesday that she, too, would like to meet Thurmond’s other children, who include another son, Paul, and a daughter, Julie. She said she had not yet talked to them, though.
After Thurmond died in June at age 100, Williams said she began to think about ending “all the speculation and questions” about the long-rumored relationship.
Williams said her mother didn’t tell her much about her relationship with Thurmond. During an interview set to air on “60 Minutes II” on Wednesday night, Williams called it an “affair” and said her mother remembered Thurmond as “very nice person.”
She recalled first meeting him in his Edgefield office.
“Well, you look like one of my sisters,” Williams recalled Thurmond saying. “You’ve got those cheekbones like our family.”’
“So that was like almost an admission,” Williams said.
She said Wednesday that she didn’t know her father was white until her mother “introduced me. Then obviously, I knew.”
In seven decades of politics, the former governor and senator gained fame and infamy as an arch-segregationist, but he later came to support a holiday for slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Thurmond’s nephew Walter Thurmond Bishop, the chief federal bankruptcy court judge for South Carolina, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he served as a “pass-through” for payments sent by cashier’s check to Williams.
Bishop said he sent money at the senator’s request whenever Williams indicated she needed financial assistance. He said he began communicating with Williams on the senator’s behalf in the late 1960s and continued to send money, along with warm personal letters, until recent years.
“He never told me she was his daughter,” Bishop said. “I could surmise, but he never did point-blank say it.”