Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who lived for decades with a stunning secret — that she was the interracial daughter of SenatorStrom Thurmond of South Carolina, a former segregationist who never acknowledged her publicly as his child — died Monday in a nursing home near Columbia, S.C. She was 87.
Her death was confirmed by her lawyer, Frank K. Wheaton.
Six months after her father died at age 100 as the longest-serving senator in history, Ms. Washington-Williams broke her silence.
“My father’s name was James Strom Thurmond,” she said at a news conference in a hotel ballroom in Columbia on Dec. 17, 2003.
She said she had remained silent out of respect for Mr. Thurmond, his career and the rest of his family. His death, and encouragement from her children, motivated her to speak out. She noted that there were similarities between her story and that of Sally Hemings, a slave with whom Thomas Jefferson bore children.
“My children deserve the right to know from whom, where and what they have come,” Ms. Washington-Williams said. “I am committed in teaching them and helping them to learn about their past. It is their right to know and understand the rich history of their ancestry, black and white.”
Measuring her emotions, Ms. Washington-Williams explained that her mother was Carrie Butler, a teenage maid in the Thurmond household in Aiken, S.C., in the 1920s, when Mr. Thurmond, the son of a wealthy lawyer, was in his early 20s. She would go on to say in interviews that not until she was 13 and being raised by an aunt did she learn that Ms. Butler was her mother. Several years later, after her mother took her to meet him for the first time, she learned that her father was white.
“You,” he said to Ms. Butler, “have a lovely young daughter.”
After that meeting, Mr. Thurmond, who did not yet hold elected office, delivered $200 to his daughter, using go-betweens.
In 1948, the year Ms. Butler died at age 38, Mr. Thurmond, then the governor of South Carolina, ran for president on a segregationist platform.
“All the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes,” he said at the time.
While Ms. Washington-Williams’s 2003 announcement was a revelation for many people, many others had long understood Mr. Thurmond to have had an interracial child.
He met with her many times while she was a student at South Carolina State University, a historically black college, and after she moved to Los Angeles, where she and her husband, a lawyer, raised her four children. He provided some financial support to her children, and wrote a letter of recommendation for her son to attend medical school. Ms. Washington-Williams said that she had visited his office in Washington many times and felt no bitterness toward him.
“All of those on his staff knew exactly who I was,” she said in making her announcement.
Ms. Washington-Williams sought no financial compensation. After her announcement, the Thurmond family quickly acknowledged the family link, and she met personally with at least two of her half-siblings, J. Strom Thurmond Jr., a former United States attorney in South Carolina, and Paul Thurmond, a Republican state senator.
Essie Mae Washington was born on Oct. 12, 1925, in Aiken, S.C. She moved to Coatesville, Pa., as a young child and was raised by her aunt and uncle, whose name she took. She met her husband, Julius T. Williams, while both attended South Carolina State. In Los Angeles, she spent more than 30 years as a teacher and school administrator while her husband worked as a lawyer.
Her survivors include two daughters, Monica Williams-Hudgens and Wanda Williams-Bailey; a son, Ronald; more than a dozen grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren; as well as her two half-brothers and a half-sister, Mr. Thurmond’s daughter, Juliana Whitmer. A son, Julius, and her husband both died before her.
In 2004, a monument at the South Carolina State House was altered to add the name Essie Mae as one of Mr. Thurmond’s children. In 2005, she published a best-selling memoir, “Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond.”
In that book, she recalled that Mr. Thurmond had required her to travel from California to Atlanta in later years to receive money. She also recalled his response when she sent him a Father’s Day card:
“Dear Essie Mae, Thank you for your kind remembrance on Father’s Day. Affectionately, Strom Thurmond.”