A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond
Breaking nearly eight decades of silence, Essie Mae Washington–Williams comes forward with a story of unique historical magnitude and incredible human drama. Her father, the late Strom Thurmond, was once the nation's leading voice for racial segregation (one of his signature political achievements was his 24–hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, done in the name of saving the South from "mongrelization"). Her mother, however, was a black teenager named Carrie Butler who worked as a maid on the Thurmond family's South Carolina plantation.
Set against the explosively changing times of the civil rights movement, this poignant memoir recalls how she struggled with the discrepancy between the father she knew–one who was financially generous, supportive of her education, even affectionate–and the Old Southern politician, railing against greater racial equality, who refused to acknowledge her publicly. From her richly told narrative, as well as the letters she and Thurmond wrote to each other over the years, emerges a nuanced, fascinating portrait of a father who counseled his daughter about her dreams and goals, and supported her in reaching them–but who was unwilling to break with the values of his Dixiecrat constituents.
With elegance, dignity, and candor, Washington–Williams gives us a chapter of American history as it has never been written before–told in a voice that will be heard and cherished by future generations.
"Every girls wants her daddy," says the recently revealed daughter of an affair between 23-year-old Strom Thurmond and the family's 15-year-old black maid, "and I wanted mine." In this surprising and sometimes poignant memoir, Washington-Williams reveals how, when she was 16, she learned that her real father was "a handsome, charming, and rich white lawyer." Washington-Williams was raised by an aunt; her biological mother, who died at 38 in a hospital's poverty ward, rarely appears. But Washington-Williams fashions her a kind of love story: "I knew loved my mother. I believed he loved me, after his fashion." His fashion, as he lives out his political career governor, presidential candidate, senator involves surreptitious visits marked by vacuous advice and extravagant gifts. Much that others might have found bitter is given a rosy spin: as a great-aunt remembers slavery, "The massahs all looked after their children, no matter who birthed them." As Washington-Williams has it, Robert E. Lee was a "great American" and "Strom Thurmond turned out to be right about a lot of things, though segregation wasn't one of them." Washington-Williams asserts, "I am every bit as white as I am black, and it is my full intention to drink the nectar of both goblets," and notes that she has sought to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Readers are left to sort out the contradictions for themselves. Photos.
Such a fascinating story…
This book is as much an autobiography as it is a history book. Essie tells her story in such a way that you can sense the year and what was happening around her. I’m so glad I read this book. It is testament that for some of us the “gray” areas are the rule.