Number 21 - December 19, 2002
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Black Commentator views the article reprinted below, written in 1996,
as an intriguing, many-layered piece of sociology. We believe the story
speaks as much to conditions and behaviors in the Black community of
an earlier era, as it does to the insane world of white racists. The
article is also posted at http://www.thoughtcrimes.org/.
BY KEN CUMMINS
linking Sen. Strom Thurmond with Essie Washington have been woven
into the fabric of Southern political folklore.
the two share a special relationship, but is she really his daughter?
photo from a 1948 South Carolina State College yearbook features
the members of Delta Sigma Theta, to which Essie Mae Washington
belonged. Classmate Frank E. Cain said Washington "is very likely
the person standing third from the left rear in the photo. But
I simply cannot make a positive identification because I never
remember [Essie] not wearing her glasses."
(Click on image for close up of Elsie)
South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond was running for president in 1948
on the Democratic party break-away Dixiecrat ticket, he vowed to keep
blacks out of the institutions of white southern life.
the bayonets in the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our
schools, our churches and our places of recreation," Thurmond said then
in one of his speeches.
who still recall his fiery, segregationist rhetoric of that turbulent
period say Thurmond often referred to blacks as "niggers" and swore
they would never be allowed to darken the doorways of public buildings.
the same time he was preaching segregation now and forever, Thurmond
discreetly was financing the education of a black coed business administration
major at all-black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg.
fact, had it become known at the time, could have ended Thurmond's remarkable
political career before it even got started, said Southern historian
relationship with and support of this black woman has continued to this
day, according to the woman's in-laws and members of Thurmond's Senate
those who knew of the unusual relationship back then see no contradiction
in Thurmond's championing segregation while helping a young black woman
get ahead in life, because the woman purportedly is his daughter.
born at the turn of the century when the Civil War defeat still hung
heavy over South Carolina, has lived a life that has spanned the 20th
Century, which has seen considerable change in southern ways.
Thurmond, in supporting a black woman he supposedly sired, remained
loyal to one of the codes of his youth, said Bennettsville lawyer Frank
E. Cain, a classmate of the woman purported to be the senator's daughter
at South Carolina State in the late 1940s.
code required white boys, who often learned about sex "on the colored
side of town," to take care of any children they fathered.
just a carry-over from slavery where the white landlord had his black
family," Cain said recently. "That's the old South."
he said, sprang from those plantation roots. "Thurmond hated black folks,"
Cain contends. "I think his reasons for helping Essie were strictly
woman widely believed to be Thurmond's black daughter is Essie Mae Washington,
born in Thurmond's native Edgefield in 1925.
the time of Washington's birth, her mother worked for Edgefield's segregated
school system, and Thurmond taught and coached white students.
Thurmond advanced from those humble beginnings to national prominence,
Washington has lived a life in the shadows. Six months after she was
born, her mother moved to Pennsylvania, where Essie grew up and graduated
from high school. She returned to South Carolina to attend college,
where she met her husband.
South Carolina native has lived in south central Los Angeles for more
than 20 years, and is the mother of four children. A widow, she continues
to work as a counselor for adult education in a suburban Los Angeles school
system, and refuses to confirm or deny her blood ties to Thurmond.
Mae Washington, now 71, lives in this house in the Los Angeles suburbs.
She refuses to confirm or deny allegations that she is Sen. Strom
a brief interview in June, 1994, Washington said the senator "has been
of assistance" to her, but "I don't have anything to say on that. I
don't want to say anything that could hurt somebody who has done so
much good," she said. "Why don't you write about the good things he
has done for people?"
this reporter replied that he considered Thurmond's longtime and continuing
support of her to be one of the more remarkable things he has done,
Washington fell silent, and refused to answer any more questions.
story of Essie Washington is well-known in South Carolina among people,
black and white, who lived in the state and were active in politics
in the late 1940s and 1950s when this tale circulated widely.
the same time he was preaching segregation now and forever, Thurmond discreetly
was financing the education of a black co-ed business administration major
at all-black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. That fact, had
it become known, could have ended Thurmond's political career before it
those years, Thurmond, a highly decorated war hero, was at the forefront
of South Carolina
and national politics. He served as governor from 1947-51, ran for president
in 1948 on the anti-integration Dixiecrat ticket, and won election to
the U.S. Senate on a write-in vote — an unheard of feat — in 1954.
story of Thurmond's black daughter, or references to it, has appeared
in print before. On Oct. 11, 1972, The Edgefield Advertiser,
the newspaper in the small town where Thurmond was born, covered its
entire front page with the following provocative headline: "SEN. THURMOND
IS UNPRINCIPLED — WITH COLORED OFFSPRING — WHILE PARADING AS A DEVOUT
the story inside the Advertiser, South Carolina's oldest newspaper,
provided no details about "colored offspring." W.W. Mims, the newspaper's
crusty, 85-year-old editor, has been a foe of Thurmond's for more than
reporter for The State subsequently asked Thurmond about the
allegation, but the senator brushed aside the question with a non-denial.
South Carolina journalist Marilyn W. Thompson, who had worked on the
story over a 10-year period, penned a lengthy account of her research
in the Aug. 4, 1992, edition of The Washington Post, where
she now works as an editor.
of Washington's classmates claims that a reference to Thurmond having
sired a black daughter appeared in The Pittsburgh (Pa.) Courier,
a black-owned newspaper that continues to publish today.
A. "Blue" Kennedy, vividly recalled that the Courier ran a
lengthy article in 1949 or 1950 focusing on Washington and her family
ties to Thurmond. A search of back issues of the Courier on
file at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., failed to confirm
Kennedy's recollection. The newspaper's current owners do not have copies
of the Courier from that period.
said that Thurmond, governor of South Carolina at the time, never denied
the Courier's story. "What got me was, there was never a protest
or never an argument from his side," Kennedy said in a phone interview.
"One thinks he protests too little."
"There was never
a protest or never an argument from his side. One thinks he protests too
A. "Blue" Kennedy
said his front-page headline also did not draw a denial from Thurmond,
who was then serving in the U.S. Senate.
was the first graduate of South Carolina State School of Law in 1950.
Julius Williams, Kennedy's friend who married undergraduate Washington,
a business major, while in law school, was the second. Both men graduated
in 1950, Thurmond's last full year as governor.
law school was opened during Thurmond's term so the state could continue
to bar blacks from the University of South Carolina School of Law. The
courts had sanctioned the separate school for blacks.
remembers that Thurmond came to the black university's campus often
during his years as governor to visit his daughter. Those visits — which
Kennedy refers to as "special audiences" — took place in school president
Miller Whitaker's office, out of sight of the students.
Leo Kerford, a professor at the law school at the time, recalls seeing
Thurmond and Washington together on campus. "He would come and visit
and sit out on the center court with her," Kerford said. "He wasn't
trying to hide it."
was so well-known," he said, "I believe it was a fact. The talk was
that he would visit her and hand her money. Her girlfriends in the dormitory
would wait for her to come back with money from Daddy."
said such conduct was not considered unusual at the time, even though
Thurmond was the nation's leading political voice for segregation. "That's
how he got his start, by yelling 'nigger' louder than anyone else."
official currently with the college confirmed that Thurmond had paid
Washington's tuition on at least one occasion.
a 1951 graduate of the law school, also remembers those visits. "Gov.
Thurmond used to come over to the college quite frequently," he recalled.
Cain said Thurmond would arrive in his "big, black Cadillac limousine"
with the state flag flying from the fender and a South Carolina patrolman
at the wheel.
said he saw the governor's car on campus once or twice a semester, but
never actually saw Thurmond. Each time, word would quickly spread among
the students that the governor had come to visit his daughter.
said Washington would be summoned to the president's office, and would
sometimes enter the administration building, known as Miller Hall, through
the back entrance. "[Thurmond] would come to the administration building
and meet the girl in the president's office," Cain said.
Simkins, a longtime civil rights activist who died in 1992 at the age
of 92, was leader of the state NAACP when Thurmond was governor. Simkins
told a story about visiting President Whitaker and being interrupted
by his secretary, who announced that the governor was there to see his
said that the president explained to her that the governor's daughter
had violated curfew, and that Thurmond was down to have a talk with
said that it was long-believed in the black community that Thurmond
had fathered a black daughter, but because "he did right by her" no
one would talk about it while he was still alive.
the Oct. 11, 1972, edition of his newspaper appeared, Mims said Thurmond
was asked about the allegation by Jack Bass, a reporter for The
Charlotte Observer. Mims said Bass later told him Thurmond responded
by saying Mims had better watch himself, but did not deny the allegation
Wrighten, who refers to himself as "professor/attorney," filed the lawsuit
that led to the creation of South Carolina State Law School. Wrighten,
now living in New London, Conn., said he, Julius Williams and Washington
were close friends during law school and afterwards. Williams tutored
him through some of his classes, and Washington typed his law school
papers during her senior year.
don't think she was Thurmond's daughter," Wrighten said, "I believe
it was a fact."
remembers many occasions — in the school cafeteria, at parties and on
campus — when women at the college would tease Washington about being
was quite dignified," he said. "She would never even look at them."
said he heard "never a word from her mouth, never a word from her husband's
mouth" about Washington's relationship to Thurmond. "There were so many
half-white children at South Carolina State College when I went there
five or six girls you couldn't distinguish from white girls." He said
Washington was in that group.
sister-in-law, Charlotte Johnson of Savannah, said that when her brother
married, "He told us she was Thurmond's daughter. Essie said the same
said she initially was skeptical of Washington's claimed birthright.
But she became convinced it was true because "whenever she was in need
of money (after college), she'd say she was contacting him, and then
she would come back with the money." Robert, a cousin of Washington's
late husband, confirmed Johnson's account.
Cimko, Thurmond's press secretary, said that there have been no inquires
regarding Washington during her tenure, but that she "had read all the
reports." Cimko had nothing to add to Thurmond's 1992 statement that
he did assist Washington with her tuition and that she "occasionally
drops by (Thurmond's office) when she is in the area."
Thurmond prepares for his eighth run for the U.S. Senate, one of South
Carolina's most persistent rumors about its most durable politician
Cummins is an investigative reporter and contributing editor of City
Paper in Washington D.C.
Cummins was an investigative reporter and contributing editor of City
Paper in Washington D.C. when this story was first published in 1996.