Essie Mae Washington-Williams, daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), speaks to reporters on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2003.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams, daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), speaks to reporters on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2003. Lou Krasky/AP
Author and teacher Essie Mae Washington-Williams died in Columbia, S.C. according to her family attorney, Frank Wheaton. Washington-Williams, who was African-American, came to attention in 2003, when she publicly disclosed her father's name: the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, (R-S.C.), a one-time devoted segregationist.
"My children deserve the right to know from whom, where and what they have come," she said at a news conference on Dec. 17, 2003, according to the New York Times. "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."
Washington-Williams eventually wrote an autobiography, titled Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond.
Thurmond ran for President as a Dixiecrat in 1948, on a platform of segregation, opposing the Democrats' civil rights program, notes NPR's David Welna. In 1954, he won election to the Senate as a write-in candidate and filibustered a civil rights bill by speaking for more than 24 hours on the Senate floor. When the Civil Rights Act was signed by Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, Thurmond changed parties and became a Republican. David reports he "never apologized for his segregationist past. But he did make some amends - and won some black votes - by becoming the first former Dixiecrat on Capitol Hill to hire an African-American staffer."
Thurmond never publicly disclosed the existence of his daughter, and she remained silent too, until about six months after his death. Then she decided to come forward - not for money, she said, but "to tell the truth," the Los Angeles Times says.
The truth is this: Essie's mother, Carrie Butler, was a 15-year-old African-American house maid in the Thurmonds' South Carolina home when she became pregnant by Thurmond, who was 22, an act that is now considered statutory rape. As the LA Times reports, Butler gave birth to Essie Mae when she was 16. The baby was soon sent north to an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania. Essie Mae returned in 1941 when she was 16 and her mother was ill; she was taken to meet her father for the first time.
But in the news conference, Washington-Williams said she visited her father several times after that, including in his Senate offices in Washington, D.C. She said she and her father respected each other, and she never wished to hurt him. In telling the world her full identity, she said "I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I feel completely free."
Funeral services will be private.