WASHINGTON – Barely a year has passed since Essie Mae Washington-Williams revealed she was the illegitimate daughter of one of the nation's leading segregationists.
It was a decision that put a twist in the history of the civil rights movement and brought heavy public scrutiny to the biracial daughter of the late Strom Thurmond.
Washington-Williams spoke of her complicated relationship with the South Carolina senator and fielded questions Monday from a racially mixed crowd of about 80 people at a bookstore before signing copies of her 240-page autobiography,”Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond,” which was released last week.
Washington-Williams was the result of a liaison between a 23-year-old Thurmond and the family’s 15-year-old black maid. She was raised by her mother's sister in a steel town near Philadelphia.
Washington-Williams found out her father was a rich,white lawyer at the age of 16. She said it was common knowledge among black communities in the South after Thurmond,who was then governor,visited her at the segregated South Carolina State College he arranged for her to attend in the 1940s.
“It's been around for over 60 years,” she said.
Washington-Williams,79,explained why she had kept quiet about Thurmond as he became a fierce opponent to desegregation. “I have no way of knowing if I would have said anything,if it would have helped segregation or not,” Washington-Williams said.
Thurmond holds the record for the longest filibuster in U.S. Senate history,speaking against the 1957 civil rights bill for more than 24 hours.
“The things that he was saying during his speeches,of course I wasn't happy with him and I talked to him about it many times,” she said pausing. “He felt there wasn't anything he could do. The races had always been separate.”
She approached the media with her story in December 2003,six months after her father's death and co-wrote the book with William Stadiem in about six months.
Asked why pictures of her mother,who died at the age of 38 in a hospital poverty ward,were not included in her autobiography,Washington-Williams said she had met her mother only three years before she was told Thurmond was her father.
“I did not grow up with my mother,” she said. “I didn't have any pictures of her.”
Washington-Williams addressed questions from the crowd that Thurmond might have fathered other biracial children. “If there are any other daughters,I don't know about that,” she said.
Thurmond and his second wife had four children,one of whom was killed in a car accident in 1993.
Washington-Willliams' attorney,Frank Wheaton,of Pasadena,Calif.,said there was more to come from her story. “As deep as we get into this process,this is just a first step in the realization Mrs. Williams has brought forth,” Wheaton said.
Since Washington-Williams has made her story public,Wheaton said others have come forward claiming to be related to the late senator. “I do represent other alleged descendents,” said Wheaton,who has been traveling with Washington-Williams to promote her book.
Winnie M. Soltz,64,a substitute teacher from Gaithersburg,Md.,a Washington suburb,clutched her signed copy of the Washington-Williams' story.
“I'm mesmerized when she comes on television. I'm just fascinated by her story,” Soltz said.
“I just wasn't aware of senators having children like that. And they were saying it was a known fact in the South,” said Soltz,who grew up in Ohio. “I think this book is an insight because when you grow up in the North,going to the South,they would have separate drinking fountains and,it was just very different.”