Monthly Archives: December 2003

“Will you stop calling her Essie Mae!” my friend Warren said. “Hasn’t the poor woman suffered enough without you calling her Essie Mae ? That is so Southern — so Negro!”

“But Warren,” I told him. “That’s her real name.”

Warren had trouble taking that in. But then I’ve had even worse trouble. Warren’s black and so am I. But much lighter than Warren. Much lighter. As light as Essie Mae in fact. She was nonetheless an oddly familiar figure to me when her face popped up on the tube. She looked like one of my Aunts. Needless to say our Roots are rather different. My father was white. My mother was the last of seven children — the issue of a white Irishwoman and a black man to whom she wasn’t legally married. That wouldn’t have been possible in the outskirts of Cleveland Ohio at the turn of the 19th century. It was farm country then and people, having ample space and privacy, apparently minded their own business. Or so I was told.

Essie Mae Washington Williams was born a bit later — in the 1920′s. And she was the offspring of black servant girl and one of the most notorious segregationists in American History, Strom Thurmond.

Yet to read the overwhelming majority of press accounts this grotesque tragedy was something of an American Fairy Tale — a Racial History Lesson with a Happy Ending.

Consider how that most gentlemanly of Beltway pundits David Broder tells the story:

She entered the hotel ballroom slowly, her head high, a small woman in a bright red suit, and let two of her adult children take her hands as she came up the three steps to the rostrum. The opposite wall was lined with TV cameras, and in the three sections of seats, curious South Carolina citizens, both black and white, drawn by the drama of her story, outnumbered the reporters. Without a word being said, the applause rolled out and the spectators and journalists rose to their feet.

In other words, another example of why Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes is one of the greatest works of art ever concieved.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams responded with a nod of her head and took her seat. The 78-year-old, gray-haired grandmother, a retired schoolteacher now acknowledged as the oldest child of the late Strom Thurmond, a mixed-race product of his liaison at 22 with a 16-year-old black housemaid in his parents’ Edgefield, S.C., home, appeared to be entirely in control of her emotions. Three days earlier, she had finally confirmed decades of rumors and told The Post’s Marilyn W. Thompson that she was in truth the daughter of the longest-serving senator, who died earlier this year at age 100.
For a reporter who had watched Thurmond over a half-century, in which he evolved from a staunch segregationist and fierce opponent of civil rights legislation into the proud employer of a racially integrated staff and a patron of historically black colleges, it was an extraordinary moment.

Whoa — back up a bit there Mr. Broder. Strom Thurmond didn’t “evolve” at all. The Civil Rights movement had simply rendered him obsolete. As for being a “proud employer” at the close of his life, he was a “proud employer” back when his act of rape brought Essie Mae Washington-Williams into this world.

As for Marilyn Thompson, she has quite a different story to tell in that when she confronted Essie Mae Washington Williams in 1980, at the urging of none other than Lee Atwater,who felt it was time for the truth about Strom to be told, she FLAT OUT LIED TO HER, denying the story that as many people in Southern politics knew of just as followers of Hollywood knew of Rock Hudson’s sexual orientation long before his official death-bed disclosure.

For the people of this state, it was one more demonstration of the strange and powerful ways in which the legacies of the past impinge on the choices and emotions of the present.
That is a universal phenomenon, but in my experience, it is the South, more than any other section of the country, that is haunted by its past. The struggle to come to terms with it consumes more psychic energy here than anywhere else I know.

Cue Max Steiner.

At breakfast that morning, the mayor of Columbia, Bob Coble, told me that two days earlier he had been in New York City, doing what mayors do in this time of high unemployment — talking to corporate consultants about the advantages of bringing jobs to Columbia.
“I’m going to my first appointment,” Coble said, “and what do I see on the marquee of the CNN building, where they have the news bulletins going around in lights? The guy who burned the Confederate flag down here has been barred from ever entering the state capitol again. That’s the image we have to fight.”
As almost everyone knows, South Carolina has been wracked by ongoing controversy over the display at the capitol of that symbol of the Confederacy. The last two governors — one a Republican, the other a Democrat — were turned out of office in part because of their efforts to resolve the battle. An NAACP boycott of the state is still in effect.

The flag is a separate issue, Broder. Quit trying to change the subject.

South Carolina has been struggling with an exodus of jobs. “We’re winning the war in Iraq,” the mayor says, “but we’re losing to China and India.” The last thing it needs is social strife that scares away investors and employers.
Luckily, Columbia has a lot going for it. A new convention center and hotel are underway. The University of South Carolina is expanding its research center and is designated as a national center for fuel cell development. The old warehouse district has been revived and looks like Boston or San Francisco, with its apartments and restaurants.

What’s this? Essie Mae could be bad for business. Maybe you ought to hustle her offstage.

Into this melange of past controversies and hopeful prospects stepped Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Had she spoken with anger about the hypocrisy of a man who espoused separation of the races but exploited a powerless young black woman sexually, she could have stirred the racial tensions never far below the surface. Instead, she spoke kindly of her father’s outreach to her and the financial support he provided.

He wasn’t a father. He raped her mother. At it’s most polite and precise “sperm donor” would be the most appropirate term. But Broder doesn’t want to deal with that. He’s bought into Essie Mae’s fantasy of a “distant father” who gave her “financial support” on an annual basis.

She seemed entirely sincere in saying that she had kept her silence about her parentage all these years out of respect for him — a debt the senator’s other children acknowledged last week by their ready acceptance of her claimed paternity and her friendship.

The last time I heard “seemed sincere” in was coming out of the maw of Matt Drudge. As for Thurmond’s legal issue her claim was by no means accepted “readily.” The Thurmonds have declined comment. After all it’s going to court as Essie Mae has designs on it. Clever Strom created trust funds for the legal offspring years ago, so the estate that’s left is rather meager. But Essie Mae wants it. Or rather her children do — as they’re the ones behind her going public. How far they’ll get is open to question. But there’s always the book, the movie, and Oprah.

The sense I got from members of both races who came to the hotel was one of pride — and of relief. When this model of tact and discretion said that telling the world who she really is made her feel “completely free,” they applauded. And when she said she had come back from her longtime residence in Los Angeles to South Carolina to make her first public appearance as the daughter of the former governor and senator because “my roots are here,” they cheered.

Yes, they cheered. Just like the crowds outside the theater for the premiere of “The Royal Rascal” in Singin’ in the Rain when Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) explained to Dora Bailey (Madge Blake) that the thing that kept him going through thick and thin was his watch-cry: “Dignity — Always Dignity.”

Well Essie Mae Washington Williams has scads of dignity– for a blackmailer.

For the moment, at least, they were not blacks or whites, they were South Carolinians, able to acknowledge and deal with their past — and the reality of their complex history and heritage.

Yes it’s complex alright. As Marilyn Thompson disclosed in a subsequent piece for “Pravda” Thurmond’s “support” for his first-born child “varied” — as did the nature of their father-daughter “relationship.”

A handful of communications found in Thurmond’s archives at Clemson University’s Strom Thurmond Institute suggest his reluctance to provide money, particularly in 1964, the year that Williams’s husband, Julius, died of heart problems and left her a widow with four children.

The letters also show efforts by Thurmond and his Senate office to cloak the true nature of the relationship in official correspondence, sometimes writing to her as if in a code known only to the two of them. Calendars found in the papers document the last visit to Thurmond’s Washington office, on June 20, 2002, by Williams’s daughter Wanda. Williams has described the visit as part of an annual ritual to pick up money from the senator.

The archival material shows that Williams contacted Thurmond’s office around July 20, 1964, a period when Thurmond had returned to South Carolina to test the political winds for his switch to the Republican Party. Thurmond’s top aides had cautioned him that bolting from the Democratic Party — as he had done once before in 1948 to run as a Dixiecrat segregationist — could be suicidal because of the state’s solid Democratic Party backing.

Thurmond that summer remained an outspoken civil rights foe. According to newspaper reports, he declared in a June 1964 speech on the floor of the Senate: “Segregation in the South is honest, open and aboveboard. Of the two systems, or styles of segregation, the northern and the southern, there is no doubt whatever in my mind which is the better. Our southern system, too, has stood and passed the pragmatic test. It works.”

He condemned the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as legislation that would “make a czar of the president of the United States and a Rasputin of the attorney general.”

Thurmond’s executive secretary wrote to Williams in Savannah, Ga., that the senator was in South Carolina, suggesting that since it was about a “finance matter” she should attempt to contact him at his residence in the late evening.

Thurmond responded himself with a formal letter on July 28, 1964.

“I am pressed for money at this time, but suggest that you call me over the telephone to discuss the matter with me. My recollection is, without looking up the note, there is some balance due on the loan I made you last,” he said.

Williams’s husband, a civil rights lawyer and onetime leader of the Savannah chapter of the NAACP, died on Oct. 28, 1964.

This last-mentioned fact should serve to remind the historically-challeneged that the NAACP wasn’t the civil rights group it became when Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin dragged it kicking and screaming into radical politics.

But let’s return to Essie Mae via an op-ed (once again from “Pravda” ) by one Jabari Asim

Droit du seigneur is hard to spell and maybe even harder to pronounce.

Oh not really.

Yet the French phrase arose immediately in my mind when Essie Mae Washington-Williams came forward with her story.

Cue Thelma Ritter in All About Eve.

Washington-Williams, 78, announced on December 17 that she is the daughter of Strom Thurmond. Her father, who served in the U.S. Senate longer than anyone else in history, died in June at 100. He is remembered by many as one of the nation’s staunchest defenders of racial segregation. He gradually retreated from that stance over the years, although he never apologized for his hatemongering past.

Once again a cow-pie is being passed off as a candy-apple. Strom Thurmond “retreated” from nothing.

Before he rose to fame and influence as the avatar of Jim Crow, Thurmond was a teacher and scion of Edgefield, S.C.’s most powerful family. While living with his parents, the 22-year-old impregnated Carrie Butler, the Thurmonds’ black maid. She was 16 when she gave birth to Essie Mae on Oct. 12, 1925. Butler introduced Thurmond to his daughter when Essie Mae was 16. Butler died soon after.

A death that warrants serious investigation.

Thurmond could very well have wooed Butler with flowers, candy and soft promises of devotion.

Oh Prunella! She was the maid. She was Property.

He raped her.

On the other hand, he may have felt that the romantic approach was completely unnecessary,

No shit, Sherlock!

which brings me back to droit du seigneur. The French phrase dates back to the feudal age and refers to the presumed right of the feudal lord to have sexual relations with the bride of a vassal on her wedding night. It’s no secret that white Southern men — and not just wealthy ones –for centuries followed similar assumptions regarding the black women in their midst.

Raping them.

The practice dates back to slavery. A.V. Huff, a retired historian, explained the origins of the sordid tradition to a reporter from USA Today: “It was not uncommon for white slave owners to have sexual relations with women slaves, or at the end of slavery, with blacks who were in an inferior legal and economic position.”

Only serving to underscore yet again why Mandingo is superior to Gone With the Wind in every way.

Such as teenage maids, for example. “As late as 1935, black women did housework and laundry for three dollars a week, and washerwomen did a week’s wash for seventy-five cents,” writes Deborah Gray White in “Too Heavy a Load,” a history of black women. Pursued by her wealthy employer, Butler may have felt that her options were dramatically limited.

Butler may have felt that if she fought back he’d fucking KILL HER!

He very well could have — dumping the body off the nearest cliff.

Nobody would have breathed a word — or even blinked.

Neither Butler nor Thurmond spoke publicly about their involvement, but a whispering campaign persisted. This was not unusual. According to Huff, whites seldom spoke of such couplings, “but the oral tradition in black families kept knowledge of these types of relationships alive and well.”

And what of the “oral tradition” among white? That exists too, you know.
But it wouldn’t be dignified to bring it up, now would it?

The oral tradition was validated in the case of Washington-Williams, whose white relatives have already stepped forth to “acknowledge” her.

Very clever of you to put it in quotes, Mr. Asim. They have “acknowledged” nothing. They have merely declined to deny it.

Thus, a long-circulated rumor has become recognized as fact: While spreading hate and advocating white supremacy, Strom Thurmond secretly supported a child he had fathered by a black woman.

And I’m sure we all recall the claim that Bill Clinton did likewise. Comepletely untrue of course. Bill Cinton actually enjoys the company of African-Americans. That’s one of the key factors driving the relentless hatred of the man. And so the charge that he fathered a black child arose to “bring him down to our level.” For one does such a thing in this Southern racist scenario, when one has nothing but contempt for African-Americans, particularly “their women.”

Washington-Williams is one of many who noted that Thurmond’s particular brand of hypocrisy recalls that of another Southern statesman, Thomas Jefferson. The sage of Monticello, one of the most outspoken white supremacists of the revolutionary era, probably conceived at least one child with Sally Hemings, a young slave.

There’s nothing “probable” about it. He did. And thanks to the efforts of his great, great great grandson, Lucian K. Truscott IV, the Jeffrson family has come to acknowledge what they have for hundreds of years denied.

Like Thurmond, Jefferson may have felt the pangs of conscience. Thurmond consistently provided financial support for his daughter and even helped one of his black grandsons obtain a free medical education. Jefferson, who desperately needed his slaves in order to sustain his profligate lifestyle, still managed to free five of them during his lifetime, all of whom were named Hemings.

Thurmond felt nothing but the sting of blackmail. Exactly how much he paid out to Essie Mae has yet to be divulged. As for Thomas Jefferson, he was far less willing to give up his slaves than his contemporary, George Washington — a fact that speaks for itself.

Washington-Williams has likened her story to that of Sally Hemings but she has stopped short of criticizing her father’s contradictions. That must be left to folks like me, who consider this latest episode in Thurmond’s long and controversial history more revelatory than redemptive. As for Washington-Williams, she “knew him beyond his public image,” she said. “Throughout his life and mine, we respected each other.”

Words fail.

It’s easy to respect Washington-Williams, even while puzzling over her long, cooperative silence.

No it’s NOT easy to respect Washington-Williams at all. Had she disclosed this information in a timely fashion — even in 1980 when THE BITCH FUCKING LIED TO MARILYN THOMPSON — history would have been changed.

Lives would have been spared.

Her forthright and dignified eloquence is itself a refutation of her father’s worst race-baiting pronouncements. And perhaps her coming forward also honors the memory of Carrie Butler, whose labors were long and whose life was short. Washington-Williams has declared what her mother may never have felt or been able to express. “I feel as though a great weight has been lifted,” she said. “I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I feel completely free.”

And the rest of us are still in chains.


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Essie Mae Washington Williams
Excerpt: Look at David E’s Fablog for a cogent deconstruction of much of the hypocritical gushing bullshit in the media about Essie Mae’s recent “coming out” as Strom Thurmond’s daughter. Thanks for finding this, Adam….
Weblog: The Electric Smack Shack
Tracked: December 29, 2003 06:01 PM