No Party for Essie Mae

Colbert I. King
December 21, 2002;
Page A23

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Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party will go down in the annals of Washington soirees as an event most noted for who was there and, above all, what was said and by whom. But the celebration was also remarkable because of a person not in attendance.

The audience was full of luminaries, including current and former members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and friends and family of the retiring South Carolina senator. But the party failed to include a retired schoolteacher in her late seventies now living in Los Angeles. A widow since 1964, the former teacher, Essie Mae Williams, was born Essie Mae Washington in 1925 in Edgefield, S.C. Washington reportedly is the fruit of a relationship between a white Edgefield school superintendent and a black teenager, Essie Butler, nicknamed "Tunch," who worked as a maid in the superintendent's stately house.

Now, it could have been an oversight, a deliberate snub or maybe Essie Mae Washington was invited but chose not to come. But this much is true: The fair-skinned woman, a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and a 1950 graduate of traditionally black South Carolina State College, was not on hand to help honor the man believed by many to be her father, the former Edgefield school superintendent and the oldest and longest-serving senator in U.S. history, Strom Thurmond.

This is not a groundbreaking column on the story of Thurmond's alleged black daughter. Marilyn Thompson, The Post's assistant managing editor for investigations, included a chapter about then-Gov. Thurmond's alleged support for an alleged black daughter named Essie Mae in "Ol' Strom," an unauthorized biography of Thurmond that she wrote with Jack Bass in 1998. Thompson, a veteran South Carolina reporter who had spent the better part of 10 years tracking the story, also wrote a lengthy article about the senator and his longtime ties with an African American woman for The Post's Style section in 1992. Both Thurmond and Washington have acknowledged a relationship, but she denies he is her father, though the senator has never issued a categorical denial.

The purpose of today's column is not to rehash the strong circumstantial evidence or to repeat interviews with knowledgeable sources about the long-standing and secret relationship between Thurmond and Washington. Thompson unearthed all that. But this annotation to Thurmond's life is worth highlighting, given that his fiery advocacy of segregation did more to stifle racial progress in America than the actions of any single human being in the postwar era until Alabama Gov. George Wallace came along.

Strom Thurmond was among the vanguard of southerners who passed and enforced laws legalizing segregation and discrimination in virtually every aspect of daily life. And leading the list of noxious Jim Crow laws were statutes specifically put on the books outlawing and punishing interracial cohabitation and marriage.

Thurmond was chief among those who believed and argued that drawing a tight color line and strictly segregating the races was the only way to prevent what Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi called "the mongrelization of the Nation." Thurmond was so motivated that he captured the Senate floor in 1957 and filibustered for 24 straight hours against a civil rights bill and "race-mixing." It was Thurmond who vowed to preserve the integrity of the white race and to keep the races distinct.

And it was Strom Thurmond who, according to published reports, did not practice what he so fervently preached.

The very thing Thurmond condemned, he did. Learn the story of Thurmond, Essie Mae and her mom, and come to understand the true meaning of deception, arrogance and what it means to be unprincipled. But this is not the time to wage war against Strom Thurmond. His day has come and gone. Rather we must address the damage that he did and his legacy of racial ill will that live on.

Thurmond helped create a world with walls separating people from people, the vestiges of which still exist. He was among those who vowed to protect the virtue of the white women of the South even as he allegedly used the back stairs to have his way with a woman of the darker race, surreptitiously exercising a prerogative preserved for Southern white men.

While doing that, he and they preserved an evil social system that used the gun and the noose to say that the gift of love cannot come to people of different races. Segregation, to be sure, left generations of African Americans with broken dreams and unrealized ambitions, even as others enriched themselves with better schools, jobs, housing, health care and the like. But the official rules and racial customs of Thurmond's Jim Crow era also made it possible for untold numbers of people to miss out on the mystery of love, to never know the pleasure of sharing, if even for a moment. Thurmond stood between the natural coming together of men and women, even as men like him gave themselves a pass.

And now he goes out glorified. Because in Washington, that's the way it is. But the birthday party is not the last word or act. For some of us, this is the season to put aside our agendas and turn to quiet reflection, repentance and recommitment.

This is also a time of giving. So reach out with a thought to the one untouched by the joy of Ol' Strom's birthday party: the woman who wasn't there.

Commentary 2003