COLUMBIA — Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the long-unrecognized daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, died Monday at 87.
Washington-Williams, the biracial daughter of onetime segregationist Thurmond and an African-American maid in his parents’ Edgefield home, was living in Irmo at the time of her death, according to a notice from Leevy's Funeral Home.
It was not until 2003, after the death of the U.S. senator of 48 years, that Washington-Williams revealed that Thurmond was her father.
At the time, the Thurmond family said the senator never had mentioned his first-born child, but they swiftly acknowledged her claim.
Washington-Williams first came forward to reveal her father in 2003 in an interview with The Washington Post.
A week later, the retired Los Angeles school teacher told her story to a press conference in Columbia, saying, “At last, I feel completely free.”
At the Columbia press conference, Washington-Williams said her mother, Carrie Butler, was a maid working for the Thurmond family. She said she met her father for the first time at 16.
Washington-Williams was raised by her aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania.
After high school, Washington-Williams enrolled in the then-South Carolina State College in Orangeburg on Thurmond's recommendation. Thurmond, the governor of South Carolina, kept in touch with her, visiting her on occasion, and providing financial support, she said in 2003.
Washington-Williams said she waited to tell her story publicly until after Thurmond's death because: “Throughout his life and mine, we respected each other. I never wanted to do anything to harm him or cause detriment to his life or the lives of those around him. My father did a lot of things to help other people, even thought his public stance appeared opposite.”
Washington-Williams previously had explained her relation to Thurmond to her children, to help them understand their past, she said.
The 2003 public announcement brought to a close the decades-old rumor that Thurmond, who ran for United States president in 1948 on the segregationist States' Rights Democratic Party platform, had fathered a child with a black woman.
Washington-Williams also penned a memoir about her life called “Dear Senator.”
In 2004, Washington-Williams' name was etched on the statue honoring Thurmond on the State House grounds alongside the names of the senator's other four children.
Charleston journalist Jack Bass, who co-wrote the Thurmond biography “Ol Strom,” said he doesn't think Washington-Williams ever held hard feelings toward Thurmond.
“It was a very complex relationship,” Bass said. “He provided financial support. Did he pay to keep her quiet? I think it was more complex than that.”
Bass described Washington-Williams as a reserved, church-going person who took good care of her children – Thurmond's grandchildren.