your connection to The Boston Globe

A woman of black heritage claims Thurmond as father

Retired teacher, 78, says senator paid her support

WASHINGTON -- A 78-year-old retired Los Angeles schoolteacher said she is breaking decades of silence to announce that she is the mixed-race daughter, born out of wedlock, of the late Strom Thurmond, the longtime Republican senator from South Carolina who was once the nation's leading segregationist.

In an interview, Essie Mae Washington-Williams said that Thurmond had privately acknowledged her as his daughter, and had provided financial support since 1941.

Williams described her claims in a lengthy telephone interview last week, saying she protected Thurmond because of their mutual "deep respect" and her fears that disclosure would embarrass her and harm his career. Thurmond, who died in June at age 100, said late in life through his office that Williams was a friend.

Williams, whose mother worked as a maid in the Thurmond family home as a teenager, has long been the subject of speculation, and has been pursued by journalists seeking her story for two decades. She always denied that she is Thurmond's daughter.

"I want to bring closure to this," said Williams, who plans to hold a news conference Wednesday in Columbia, S. C. "It is a part of history."

Williams did not provide definitive proof that she is Thurmond's daughter. Her lawyer, Frank Wheaton of Los Angeles, said she is ready to submit to DNA tests if challenged by the Thurmond family. Williams said she has documents to validate her assertion, including check stubs, mementos from Thurmond, and a letter from an intermediary who delivered money from the senator. She declined to name the intermediary, citing privacy concerns.

Wheaton, of the Los Angeles firm of Scolinos, Sheldon, and Nevell, said Williams will "go to whatever lengths we must" to prove her story. As a sample of her documents, she provided a copy of a 1998 Thurmond letter thanking her "for the nice Father's Day note you sent me." She said that for the time being, she did not want to release additional documents.

Williams mader her assertion as the attorney for the Thurmond estate, J. Mark Taylor, is overseeing settlement of the senator's estate in Columbia. Thurmond bequeathed cash and other items, including clothing and real estate holdings, to his three surviving children with estranged wife Nancy Moore Thurmond.

"We are not seeking to challenge the wishes of the late senator with regard to his estate," Wheaton said. "Let's be emphatically clear: We are not looking for money. We are merely seeking closure by way of the truth for Essie Mae Washington-Williams."

Taylor said he has had no contact with Williams. Thurmond's will did not acknowledge Williams or her heirs. Williams has struggled financially over the years, and in 2001, court records show, she declared personal bankruptcy.

Strom Thurmond Jr. did not return a telephone call seeking comment. In interviews over the years, Thurmond's sisters and staff have said repeatedly that Williams was only a family friend.

Williams said she met with Thurmond and received money at least once a year in sessions arranged by his staff. In recent years, as the senator's health declined, she said, financial assistance was passed through a prearranged conduit, a Thurmond relative in South Carolina. Williams' attorney declined to specify the amounts she received.

Williams' account resurrects one of the oldest stories in 20th-century southern political folklore. Over the years, Thurmond had called the allegation that he fathered a mixed-race child too unseemly to warrant comment. Noted political writer Robert Sherrill described an alleged daughter without providing a name in a 1968 book. The Post identified Williams by her maiden name in 1992, in a lengthy account of her relationship with Thurmond. The article reported that "both Thurmond and the supposed daughter have denied that he is her father, and no one has provided evidence that he is."

Recently, Williams said media pressure has intensified, with interview requests from every major television network. She declined, consistently calling Thurmond a "family friend" who merely provided her with financial assistance.

"I did not want anybody to know I had an illegitimate father," said Williams, who has four grown children. "My children convinced me to tell the truth. I want to finally answer all of these questions . . . that have been following me for 50 or 60 years."

Williams will hold her news conference 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Adam's Mark hotel in Columbia. Two blocks south, a Confederate flag decorates a Civil War memorial on the grounds of the state Capitol, and there is a statue of "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, the US senator who taught Thurmond how to court voters when he was only 6 years old.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives