In 2003 American senator Strom Thurmond passed away peacefully in his sleep. At 100 years old, the recently retired politician had been the House’s oldest active member, finally giving up his seat just six months before his death. But while large parts of America mourned his loss, they had no idea that Thurmond had taken a scandalous secret to his grave.
Thurmond was born in South Carolina in 1902 and grew up on the family farm in Edgefield. Graduating college with a horticultural degree, he toyed with a few careers before settling on law. He went on to become his hometown’s County Attorney, before being elected as a judge in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Thurmond served on the circuit for several years but resigned once America became involved in the Second World War. Despite being 39 when he signed up, the former judge took part in the decisive Normandy landings. And being in the Army must have suited him – by the time his service was over, he had collected a total of 18 awards, including a purple heart.
After the war, Thurmond returned to South Carolina. Having been involved in politics before taking the bench – he had become a member of the State Senate in 1933 – the ex-soldier set his sights on the state’s governorship. And by 1946 he had taken that office, where he would remain until 1951. At the time, the politician was a Democrat and, despite his support of segregation, considered something of a liberal.
In fact, Thurmond was influential in the solving of a grisly crime in the state, after a local black man, Willie Earl, was lynched by a mob. On the strength of somewhat flimsy evidence, Earle had been arrested on suspicion of murdering a cab driver and taken to jail. That night, a group of men broke him out of prison and set upon him. At the time, racially motivated murder wasn’t uncommon in the South and often killers were rarely caught, much less put on trial. In 1947, however, the governor ordered local police to work with federal investigators to track down the killers.
Such was Thurmond’s power that officers did, indeed, find and arrest those thought responsible for Earle’s death. But, despite appointing the state’s top lawyer to prosecute the case, the jury found the men not guilty. The state’s refusal to allow women or people of color to sit on juries, coupled with the prevailing racist attitudes in parts of the South, meant that a guilty verdict was always unlikely. However, civil rights groups agreed that the governor’s involvement had sent a message to any future lynchers: their carefree murdering days were over.
Despite Thurmond’s liberal-seeming successes, however, there was one racially motivated policy that he very much agreed with. Segregation pursued what contemporary legislators called a “separate but equal” way of life. In reality what this amounted to was state-sanctioned racism in places like South Carolina, with whites- and blacks-only public spaces, bathrooms, schools, buses and trains.
So enamored was Thurmond with segregation that, when the Democrats began to accept civil rights reforms as necessary, he left. In fact, along with other Southern governors, he formed a new party: the State’s Rights Democratic Party. Better known as the Dixiecrats, the party ran on an entirely segregation-based platform. The former judge even became their presidential candidate in 1948, running against the more liberal Harry Truman. But the Dixiecrats lost and the party disappeared.
Truman’s election led to a raft of civil rights legislation, all but relegating the political views of Thurmond to the sidelines. Elected to the Senate as the member for South Carolina in 1956, the former judge served with far less controversy for the remainder of his career. And this is despite becoming a Republican in the 1960s. In fact, his stance on racial issues may even have softened as he got older. However, the senator never officially reversed his position on segregation.
This is what made the revelation of the secret he’d kept for 78 years all the more stunning. It happened on December 17, 2013, and came from the unlikeliest of sources. In front of a room full of journalists, a woman said, “My name is Essie Mae Washington-Williams. I was born on October 12, 1925. My father’s name was Strom Thurmond.” But why would Thurmond’s daughter call a press conference to announce the former senator as her dad? Simple. Because Washington-Williams’ mother, Carrie Butler, was black. It seems the former judge’s belief in segregation only extended to public places.
During the press conference, Washington-Williams explained that her mom had been a maid in the Thurmond household. When he was 22, Thurmond had been engaged in an affair with Butler, who was just 16 at the time. The relationship produced a girl, who was adopted by her aunt when the baby was six months old. She wouldn’t meet her father for another 16 years. Taken to his law office in 1941, she later said that it was “like an audience with an important man, a job interview, not a reunion with a father.”
Despite that inauspicious start, the father and daughter did keep in touch. In fact, Thurmond even paid for Washington-Williams to go to college and helped out when she became a widow. All the while, no one ever discussed his having a mixed-race child. It seems nobody ever talked about it – including his daughter, who kept the secret until his death.
Did Washington-Williams ever discuss racial issues with the man The New Yorker once called “the most recognizable segregationist in 20th-century politics?” Well, in her book Dear Senator: A Memoir By The Daughter Of Strom Thurmond, she revealed that her father “defended his beliefs as part of the ‘culture and custom of the South.’” She went on, “I certainly didn’t like the idea that he was a segregationist, but there was nothing I could do about it.”
Of course, because Washington-Williams had waited so long to reveal the truth, there were those who thought that Thurmond had forced his daughter to stay silent. In her book, she said, “It’s not that [he] ever swore me to secrecy. He never swore me to anything. He trusted me and I respected him. We loved each other in our deeply repressed ways. That was our social contract.”
Whatever Washington-Williams’ reasons for keeping her father’s identity to herself, his death in 2003 changed everything. And while those outside of the political world may have been shocked by the revelations about Thurmond’s personal life, for those who knew him, it had been an open secret. The amount of access Washington-Williams had to the senator meant she had to be more than an ordinary citizen.
Even so, watching your father, as The Washington Post put it, “oppose every piece of civil rights legislation that came before him” must have been hard. Perhaps the reason this sort of public/private hypocrisy didn’t raise too many eyebrows among Thurmond’s peers, though, is because it’s been happening for centuries.
In fact, one of America’s most famous politicians, Thomas Jefferson, also had a distinct dichotomy in his life. The founding father and one-time president is said to have had a relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. It began in the 1790s, after the death of Jefferson’s wife, continued for years and produced six children. Jefferson himself refused to deny the relationship, but his family were much more reticent.
As a result of those denials, Hemings and her children were written out of the Jefferson family history for nearly two centuries. It wasn’t until 1997, following the publication of a controversial book about the affair, that the truth began to emerge. Then, after a 1998 DNA test confirmed the esteemed lineage, the former president’s family finally accepted what Hemings’ family had been saying for 200 years.
Thankfully, Washington-Williams didn’t have to wait quite so long for the acknowledgement she was seeking. The Thurmond family did not deny her heritage. In fact, as Strom Thurmond, Jr, her half-brother, told ABC News at the time, “We have no reason to believe that Ms. Williams is not telling the truth.” He went on, “As far as emotions, how I feel, I feel good, because that’s the feeling you get from doing the right thing.”
As for Washington-Williams, telling the world her real identity was a turning point in her life. “In a way, my life began at 78,” she wrote in her memoir. “At least, my life as who I really was. I may have called it ‘closure,’ but it was much more like an opening. A very grand opening.” The retired teacher sadly passed away in 2013. But her place in America’s complicated history is forever assured.