Transpartisan Note #74
by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner
Strom Thurmond, US Senator (R-South Carolina), 1954/2003:
Arguably the most successful public racial segregationist American politician of the 20th century, Strom Thurmond made his signature move to prominence in 1948. That year he joined the walkout of delegates from the Democratic Party convention in Philadelphia protesting the party’s civil rights platform. He then accepted the nomination for President of the Southern segregationist States’ Rights (“Dixiecrat”) Party.
That year Essie Mae Washington-Williams, Thurmond’s biracial daughter, turned 23 and Carrie Butler, her mother, and former maid in Thurmond’s home, died at age 40. Mrs. Washington-Williams married lawyer and NAACP member Julius T. Williams in 1949, raised four children, got a University of Southern California Master’s degree, spent 30+ years as a schoolteacher and administrator in Los Angeles, and got an honorary PhD from South Carolina State University in 2005. That same year she published a memoir, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond, written with William Stadiem, that was nominated for both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
In February 2015, two years after her mother died at 87, Mrs. Washington-Williams’s daughter, Monica Williams-Hudgens, spoke of her mixed race heritage to a Winthrop University audience in Rock Hall South Carolina—the state Strom Thurmond represented in the US Senate for 48 years.
The Rock Hall South Carolina Herald reported Williams-Hudgens’s speech and an accompanying interview saying in part:
’Anger is unproductive,’ Williams-Hudgens said. ‘I may not like what happened to me. I don’t even have to accept certain things that happened to me. But I don’t want anger to cause me to be a person I don’t want to be. I believe in going out into the world and doing good’…
When Williams-Hudgens later visited Thurmond’s archives, she was surprised to see he’d kept every letter her mother sent him, and kept a copy of every reply he sent her. ’He never threw anything away,’ she said. ‘If he wanted to keep us a secret, he would have burned all that stuff.’…
Asked if the school’s Thurmond Building should be renamed, Williams-Hudgens said ’Yes, I’d like it to be called the Strom Thurmond-Essie Mae Washington-Williams Institute. …I didn’t really feel one way or another about him,’ she said, ‘but I knew my mother knew things about him that we didn’t know, and she respected him as a person.’
At a time when current headlines spotlight battles over Confederate State symbols and the sexual consequences of the power imbalance between men and women, Essie Mae Washington-Williams’ family story highlights the intertwining of important strands of America’s complicated journey.
Monica Williams-Hudgens embracing of her family’s story offers one positive way to approach powerful divides. In 2004, the South Carolina State Legislature altered the official Strom Thurmond state monument, which listed the Senator’s children, to include his daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams.
Read the entire February 2015 article, “Granddaughter: Strom Thurmond Saved Correspondence with His Bi-racial Daughter,” by Bristow Marchant on the Rock Hall South Carolina Herald website. It is worth reading. You can get “Dear Senator” here.