R.I.P., Essie Mae

Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the hidden daughter of racist senator Strom Thurmond and his family’s Black maid, has passed away at the age of 87. She kept the truth of her parentage secret for over 70 years in order to avoid damaging his political career. A cause of death was not given. The Huffington Post reports:

“There had been rumors for decades in political circles and the black community that Thurmond had fathered a daughter by a black woman. But Washington-Williams did not come forward and identify Thurmond as her father until after his death at age 100 in 2003.

Washington-Williams spent decades as a school teacher in Los Angeles. Thurmond was South Carolina’s governor and for a time was the nation’s longest-serving U.S. senator.”

Strom Thurmond refused to publicly acknowledge Essie Mae during his entire adult life, although they apparently met face-to-face later on. Her mother was only 16 at the time of her birth, and Essie Mae wasn’t told who her father was until she herself turned 16. WLTX, News 19 from Columbia, SC reports:

“It wasn’t to my advantage to talk about anything that [Thurmond] had done,” Williams told News19 in 2003. “It certainly wasn’t to the advantage of either one of us. He of course, didn’t want it to be known. Neither did I. We didn’t have any agreement about not talking about it, we just didn’t talk about it.”

For over 60 years, the two engaged in a clandestine relationship that included financial support, birthday cards, and occasional face to face meetings–but no deep emotions. At one point, Thurmond used one of his nephews as a financial go-between, but that man was never told exactly who he was helping.

“I think he cared about me, otherwise I don’t think he would have done the things that he did if he didn’t care about me,” she said. “I liked him very much. I was not around him, remember. I only saw him about once a year, so I didn’t feel that close relationship that you normally would with a parent.”

What a strong, courageous lady. To hold her head high in the face of racist rejection from the man who helped give her life, and honor the wishes of that same dishonorable man, speaks volumes about her dignity and character. Her legacy should be remembered more than his. May she rest in peace.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams: October 12, 1925 – February 4, 2013

This little tribute to her is my opening for Black History Month. I will do my best to pay homage to the strong, beautiful, talented Black women who are usually overlooked by everyone – including the Black community.

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