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Brent Staples: Essie Mae Washington-Williams Has Her Say

Brent Staples, in the NYT (2-6-05):

Imagine yourself a 13-year-old girl living contentedly with people you believe to be your parents. An exotic woman introduced as your aunt visits your house - and blurts out,"I am your mother," while making chicken salad. She explains that you were born out of wedlock when she was 16 and given away to be raised as her sister's child.

This newfound mother dies prematurely, but not before introducing your actual father. You have been raised as black among black people in the North. But your father is white, from the heart of segregated South Carolina. He denies your existence in public but meets with you secretly in hotel rooms and borrowed offices. He shows no real affection, passes you a ritual envelope filled with cash, then gets in his car and disappears. He widens the gulf between the two of you by condemning racial fairness and seeking the presidency of the United States as the candidate of segregation.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams kept quiet about this hellish experience for more than 50 years, but came forward to unburden herself after her father, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, died in 2003. She painted a benevolent picture of her father, telling how he regularly dispensed money to her struggling young family, and secured a naval commission that allowed one of her sons to attend medical school.

This charitable view of Mr. Thurmond fails to convince as laid out in her new memoir"Dear Senator," written with William Stadiem. The Strom Thurmond who lurks between the lines of this heartbreaking book is too calculating to be kind and too self-absorbed to be genuinely charitable. The reader gets the impression that he would never have reached out to his daughter at all had she not stumbled upon the news of his existence. His prime motivation seemed to be foreclosing the possibility that she would expose him and ruin his burgeoning political career.

The white Southerner who railed against"race mixing" by day and cavorted with black lovers at night is a stock character in Confederate history. The South in the 19th century, which ended two years before Mr. Thurmond was born, was a hotbed of interracial liaisons, as evidenced by the light-skinned slaves who were visible on every plantation, not to mention the light-skinned free blacks who dominated cities like Charleston and New Orleans. The majority of these children were ignored by their fathers, who often failed to acknowledge them on the street, and in some cases even sold them off to other slave owners. But a significant minority of these white sires supported and cared for their children, who were defined as black by law. These fathers occasionally sent their black children north to be educated and recognized that their offspring would never thrive in the Jim Crow South.

Not so Strom Thurmond, who set out to become governor of his state while managing a secret that could have killed his political career. It seems clear from the record that he wanted to get control of his now-grown daughter, a beautiful young woman living in New York City, far from Dixie. He charmed her into coming south, into the teeth of Jim Crow, at a time when black Americans were fleeing the South by the tens of thousands. ...