Essie Mae On Strom Thurmond

Part I Of <B>Dan Rather's</B> Interview With Biracial Daughter

Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who the family of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond acknowledges is his illegitimate biracial daughter, tells her story to Correspondent Dan Rather. Read a complete transcript of the interview.
Dan Rather
First of all, Mrs. Williams, thank you for doing this. Let's start at the beginning. Tell me what it was like growing up.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I grew up in (UNINTEL), Pennsylvania and I went to the elementary and high school, graduated. And after getting out of high school, I went to New York for a while. I was in New York for about a year. And then I went away to college. That's when I went to South Carolina State.

Dan Rather:
And you were born where?

Essie Mae Williams:
I was born in Akins (PH), South Carolina.

Dan Rather:
When you were growing up in Pennsylvania, what did you know about your father?

Essie Mae Williams:
I met my father in 1941 when I went to South Carolina. I was about 16 years old. At that time my mother had taken me over to see him and introduced us to each other. And since that time, I was in contact with him constantly.

Dan Rather:
I want to follow up on that, but what do you remember of that first meeting when your mother took you over to meet your father?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I was very glad to meet him because I was raised by an uncle. And that's why I had the name of Washington. I took on the name of my aunt and her husband. And yet I knew I had a dad somewhere. But I had never met him, and nobody ever talked about him. Because I didn't live with my mother, and she was the one who knew most about him. She had told me a few things. So I was very glad to meet him.

Dan Rather:
What was your relationship with your mother?

Essie Mae Williams:
My mother had to work. And she had my aunt to take care of me.

Dan Rather:
Her sister?

Essie Mae Williams:
One of her sisters. And her name was Essie. And she's the one that I'm named after. And she took me to Pennsylvania when I was about six months old. However, she is not the one who raised me, because her older sister, Mary Washington, took me over and raised me until I, as I said before, I finished high school.

Dan Rather:
Now, I know it's been a long time ago, but when your mother first talked to you about your father, you were what age?

Essie Mae Williams:
16.

Dan Rather:
And what did she say to you?

Essie Mae Williams:
She had never mentioned him before, because I didn't see her until about when I was 13 years old. Because she was in South Carolina all the time. And she eventually moved to Pennsylvania. But she moved to a place called Chester, Pa. And I was in Cotesville (PH), which is about 30 miles. And I would see her occasionally on visits that she'd come over, or I'd go there during the summer. But other than that, I didn't spend a large amount of time with her. It was just as I said, my uncle and my aunt.

Dan Rather:
When your mother told you about your father, first of all, what did she say to you?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, when we went there, she had gone to see him to arrange the meeting. And she said, "I'm going to take you to introduce you to your father." And of course she did that. At that time he was a young attorney. And he was glad to meet me, because of course, he had never seen me. And it was a very nice meeting. And we talked about various things such as what I planned to do in life.

And since then, he had also given me a lot of counseling. And he was the one who had recommended South Carolina State College, because I didn't have any particular college in mind at the time. And I was down there at South Carolina State College for about three years. And during that time, I would see him periodically.

Dan Rather:
I want to talk about that as we go along. But I want to go back to the time when your mother first told you about your father. Were you surprised?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, yes, I was surprised. But I was just glad to hear what she had to say about him. Because I hadn't really talked to anybody in the family about him. I had never asked about him in particular. And so that was a wonderful experience for me.

Dan Rather:
Did your mother tell you that it was Strom Thurman and that he was white? Or did you first realize that when you actually came in his presence?

Essie Mae Williams:
She did not mention anything about his color. And when I met him, I was surprised because she'd never mentioned that he was white.

Dan Rather:
So you were surprised.

Essie Mae Williams:
She said I want to take you to meet your father.

Dan Rather:
She said, "I want to take you to meet your father."

Essie Mae Williams:
"To meet your father."

Dan Rather:
So when you-- was it in a room or outside?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, it was in his office. He was an attorney as I said. And when he arranged the appointment with her to bring me over, it was in the office. We were there for about an hour.

Dan Rather:
And when you first saw him and you realized he was white, you were surprised.

Essie Mae Williams:
I was. Because I didn't know. No one had ever said anything about him. So I was surprised.

Dan Rather:
Surprised. Would it be too much to say you were astonished?

Essie Mae Williams:
I don't know whether I would say I was astonished. But I didn't give it a great deal of thought, you know.

Dan Rather:
And what were your feelings about that?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, as I said before, I was very happy to meet him. And we talked about various things. And after we left the next day, he sent his sister over. Her name is Mary, (UNINTEL) sisters. And then he had sent some friends over to help us with our trip. And then I didn't see him any more until he -- that was 1941. And he had volunteered to go in the service in December, when the war broke out, World War II. And I didn't see him any more until he came out of the service.

And that was when we went to Philadelphia, which was not very far from Cotesville, to meet him at a hotel there. He had wanted to see me. And the only time I heard from him during that period he would send a cablegram. And then, when I met him in Philadelphia, that was our second meeting.

And then since then, even when I was in New York, I had met him here once in New York. Whenever he'd come wherever I was living, he would let me know, and then I would arrange to go and see him. We usually met for about an hour and just talked about various things.

Dan Rather: Did your mother ever talk about her relationship with him?

Essie Mae Williams:
Very little. I knew that she worked for the family. Of course I didn't know any of that before. And that was how she had met him.

Dan Rather:
So your mother was working for the Thurmond family?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
She was 16?

Essie Mae Williams:
Around 16 years of age.

Dan Rather:
And Strom Thurmond at that time was how old? In his 20s?

Essie Mae Williams:
22.

Dan Rather:
So he was 22. Your mother was 16.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
Your mother was working in the home.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
And did she tell you what happened? How it (UNINTEL PHRASE)?

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, no she didn't go into any detail about it. Then I just knew that they had a relationship. How long and all that-- she didn't go into that.

Dan Rather:
Did she tell you or not whether it was consensual or not?

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, she didn't go into details how anything happened. She only introduced as I said-- to him-- as my father, introduced me to him as my father. But she didn't go into any details about any affair that they had together. She never discussed that.

Dan Rather:
But eventually you spent time with your mother. Did you have any sense or not -- did she care for him?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well she thought he was a very nice person. And basically he is -- he was a very nice person. But she didn't go in to any other conversation about it.

Dan Rather:
Did they have a relationship after your birth?
Essie Mae Williams:
No. My understanding that nothing happened after my birth. Because she had left Edgefield (PH), which is where they all had lived. She was no longer there. And she lived in Aken, that's where I was born.

Dan Rather:
I'm pausing because some of these questions are a little difficult for me to ask, and they may be difficult for you to answer. But did your mother indicate to you at any time that when Strom Thurmond was what, 22 did you say?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
And she was 16.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
Did they have -- was the relationship ongoing, longstanding, go for awhile or not?

Essie Mae Williams:
Those are the things that I cannot answer, because these are things that were never discussed. I don't have any information on the length of the relationship or conditions or anything. I don't have any information on that at all.

Dan Rather:
You're saying your mother just didn't talk to you about that.

Essie Mae Williams:
No. Because you see, I didn't live with my mother. And we didn't see each other that often.

Dan Rather:
So the first time you met Strom Thurmond was in 1941.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
He's about to go into the service.

Essie Mae Williams:
Of course we didn't know that war was gonna break in December. It just so happens that December, when the war broke out, he was, I guess, one of the first ones to volunteer to go.

Dan Rather:
When you met him that first time, did you talk about your future, his hopes for you? What did he talk about?

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, he wanted to know what I wanted to do in life. And he had told me about this -- I mentioned I worked at the hospital. I thought I might want to go into medicine. And he mentioned about the Nurses' Corps, that they had just started at that time.

So when I went in the hospital, like Harlem hospital, and I was in the Nurses' Corps. However, when I went home during the Christmas holidays, I had told my aunt that I didn't think I wanted to continue, I think I'd like to go to college. Because I used to think about going to college and become a school teacher. That's what I eventually did.

Dan Rather:
In the period between the time that your mother conceived and the time you met Strom Thurmond, do you know whether he contributed in any way to her support?

Essie Mae Williams:
I have not heard that he contributed in any way. He may have. I really don't know. In fact, I'm not even sure when he knew about me. I don't have that information. I sort of was under the impression when she went to see him that-- she may have told him at that time for the first time. I don't know. I don't have that information.

Dan Rather:
But the first time you saw him was in 1941.

Essie Mae Williams:
'41.

Dan Rather:
And after that, did he begin to contribute to your welfare?

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, yes. He was wonderful.

Dan Rather:
He was wonderful.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
Tell me about that.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, whenever I was in need, he would help me out financially. And as I said, he did a lot of counseling. And then, when I got married, of course this was no longer continuing. However, except in an emergency. However, after my husband passed, he died at an early age of 45 in 1964 and he knew that my husband had passed, 'cause he kept in touch, and we talked, so he decided he would continue helping me with the children until they were all grown up. And he did that.

Dan Rather:
In 1941, you were 16?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
Did he help you go to college?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.
Dan Rather:
How did he do that?

Essie Mae Williams:
He was the one who had recommended it. And he helped me with the financial part.

Dan Rather:
I want to go back to when you were younger and you were going to school. When other children would say, "Who's your father or where's your father?" What did you tell them?

Essie Mae Williams:
Nobody ever asked me that. Because they assumed John Washington was my father. I carried his name. I always said 'my mother and my father.' But actually they were my uncle and my aunt. But they were very good to me. And I appreciate what they did for me. But I didn't have those kinds of questions, because at that time, nobody knew any different.

Dan Rather:
So you meet him for the first time in 1941. You're 16. He encourages you to go to college.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
He helps you to go to college.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
You're in college. Did he come to see you in college?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
Tell me about that.

Essie Mae Williams:
During the time, I was in my sophomore year at South Carolina State. And at this time, he was the governor. And he would go around to the various colleges. When he came to South Carolina State, he asked the president how was I doing. And he sent for me. I was in my dorm at the time. A young lady came over and said, "The governor would like to see you in the president's office."

And I was surprised, because I didn't know he was coming. But I went over there, and we were there I guess for 30, 40 minutes, talking about various things. He wanted to know how I was doing in school and so forth. And that was the first visit I had at the college with him.

Dan Rather:
How did he get to the college?
Essie Mae Williams:
I think he was chauffer-driven if I'm not mistaken. (UNINTEL PHRASE). I didn't see the chauffer, but that was my understanding.

Dan Rather:
But he was governor.

Essie Mae Williams:
He was governor at the time.

Dan Rather:
Was his wife at that time with him?

Essie Mae Williams:
At that time, he wasn't married. He married someone named Jean Crouch (PH). But that was later. Because when he first was governor, his sister was the one who was at the Governor's Mansion with him. And then of course, when he married Jean, then of course she became, you know, the First Lady that.

Dan Rather:
Did you ever meet his wife?

Essie Mae Williams:
I didn't actually meet her. But I did see her on one of the visits I had with him in the office. We were talking. And she didn't know that someone was in there at the time. And she opened the door and something about going to lunch. And he said, "Well, I'm having a conference here now, but I'll be out shortly."

So I got a glimpse of her. She was a very beautiful person. She had been Miss South Carolina. And that's the only time that I saw her.

Dan Rather:
He didn't introduce you.

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, no. Because she was away from the door, and we were sitting -- it was quite a distance.

Dan Rather:
When you were in college in South Carolina, you said he came to see you. Was it once, or did he come see you several times?

Essie Mae Williams:
It was at least once there. At the time, I mentioned when he came on the visit there. He did not make periodic visits to the college. He went around to all the colleges. And this was the first time that was my first meeting with him at that school.

Dan Rather:
Anybody who's been on a college campus sort of knows that words spreads quickly.

Essie Mae Williams:
Very quickly. Because the young lady who came over to get me, she was all excited. And of course she had told other people around the school. Plus there were students there from Edgefield who had heard the rumor. So it was not totally new to the people from that area. But for other people, it was. And it must have started around the campus that I was the governor's daughter.

Dan Rather:
To put this in some perspective, the college is segregated, is it not?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
It's all African-American students.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes. It was then.

Part II: Essie Mae On Thurmond

  • Rebecca Leung

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