A passing reminder of the slow creep of race relations

February 7, 2013 

The following editorial appeared Wednesday in The Florence Morning News

On the base of one of the most impressive statues in the capitol/state office building complex in downtown Columbia is a strange blemish.

There, in the list of naming the members the family of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, is what looks for all the world like an erasure, and then, beside it, in what is clearly the work of a latter-day engraver, is another name: Essie May Washington-Williams.

Washington-Williams passed away earlier this week. South Carolinians of all stripes and all but the most recent of arrivals now know her story.

Washington-Williams, who is black, is Thurmond's daughter. Her name was added to the statue commemorating Thurmond's long service to, and considerable presence in, South Carolina, about a decade ago, just after the senator died at age 100. Washington-Williams' lineage was no real secret, but it was not publicly acknowledged until Washington-Williams herself came forward shortly after Thurmond's death to announce the fact, which Thurmond's family quietly confirmed.

So ended a strange tale that says a lot about South Carolina's tortured relationship with race relations. Mostly what it says is well known by any living, breathing human being. Any actions that require lying, denial, deceit or deliberate obfuscation are most probably actions that ought to be reconsidered. Thurmond's transgressions, and the culture that surrounded them, required all of these things and by an army of people.

There is a small amount of gray area here. Thurmond, a political powerhouse who was governor, senator and a serious third-party presidential candidate in 1948, conceived Washington-Williams through a liaison with the family maid in 1925 when Thurmond was 22 and beginning his career as a coach and school teacher. The sex seems to have been consensual, to the extent that any such event in those particular circumstances can be, and for the rest of his life Thurmond made sure the child had what he, and probably his friends, imagined to be a good life.

The mother gave the child up for adoption. She was raised out of state. Thurmond made sure she had money and later, education. They enjoyed what was surely a strange relationship — Washington-Williams has detailed its inherent oddness in her memoir — that included many of the norms of an excluded father and daughter set-up, with the exception that Thurmond never actually acknowledged the fact of his paternity.

Thurmond's apparent concern for the child offers up a slight mitigating factor in the case. But other aspects leave an atmosphere of repression and decay that rested on South Carolina, and much of the post-Civil War South, like a dark cloud. Despicable deeds and untenable laws were maintained through a system that depended on a code of silence for elites — including, no doubt, newspaper editors — and, indeed, for most of the white majority in the state. As long as no one talked about race, inequity and other dark undercurrents, no one had to deal with them.

Among the topics least likely to be discussed were events like the liaison that produced Essie-May Washington-Williams in the first place. Like most southern states, South Carolina had an anti-miscegenation law in place, prohibiting intercourse and intermarriage between races, during the first half of the 20th century. Thurmond's tryst with Washington-Williams' mother clearly broke that law, but it was seldom enforced in cases where the male was a white man. And, it was seldom tested when the situation was the other way around.

Miscegenation laws were, in general, rendered moot by a 1967 Supreme Court ruling in a Virginia case. South Carolina's law actually remained in the state codes until the late 1990s, an anomaly entrapped in a legal limbo. It existed as a state statute, but could not be applied because of a federal legal mandate.

Some people in South Carolina — one longtime senator comes to mind — were similarly ensconced. Thurmond did repudiate some of his segregationist views later in his life. But he never fessed up to the Washington-Williams affair.

His only escape, it turned out, was death, and that came neither quickly nor easily.

The same might be said for the evolution of race relations in our state. As Essie May Washington-Williams knows, things move slowly in this realm.

When she died [Sunday], she was 87.

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