Part III: Williams On Thurmond

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

Dan Rather:
As life went on, you went through college and you became a teacher. What one thing did he do or say, or combination of saying, was the toughest for you to take?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I don't recall anything that I had a problem with. As far as our relationship was concerned, it was a good relationship.

Dan Rather:
But, as a public man, and the things that he did and said, what gave you most trouble?

Essie Mae Williams:
What gave me the most trouble? Well, I didn't, that he had, as far as the segregation was concerned, I certainly didn't agree with it. But as I said before, I was not in a position to change him. I couldn't do that.

Dan Rather:
Did you or did you not find yourself in a position sometime of somebody you're with, some other person of African-American heritage saying, you know, that damn Strong Thurman, or that terrible Strong Thurman, or look at what Strong Thurman's doing. And you knowing you were his daughter, did that create any dynamic between you?

Essie Mae Williams:
I don't recall any conversations where anybody ever said anything in my presence. And so I had no-- reason to ask them anything. But as I said before, his beliefs were so strong, at least the things that he did, that I think it would have been I danger. Even to try it-- to do anything about that as far as I was concerned.

Dan Rather:
I want you to know as we go along here that you've been very patient with me and very generous with your time, and I appreciate that very much. And no one can listen to you and not know that you're being candid, being as honest as seemingly possible. Did you love him as a father?

Essie Mae Williams:
I liked him very much. I was not around him. Remember, I only saw him about once a year. So, I didn't feel that close relationship that you normally would with a parent. But, I knew that he cared about me. And he was very good to me. And I would not have done anything to hurt him.

Dan Rather:
Do you consider him your father in any of the important ways of fatherhood, other than just biologically?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well-- no I don't feel any closer relationships, other than that I've explained already. Because, this is somebody I rarely saw.

Dan Rather:
So, in your mind as first as a child, 'cause you met him when you 16. And as you grew into adulthood, did you think of him only as your biological father? Or was there anything more than that in the way that you thought?

Essie Mae Williams:
I-- more as a father.

Dan Rather:
Did you see him as a father figure?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, to some extent. But it wasn't the usual type of a daughter father relationship, you know with the-- as-- and in with the marriage, legitimate marriage. So I just knew he was a great friend. And that to me he always, when he passed, I felt a loss in a sense that I'd lost a great friend.

But other than that, it was nothing else that I didn't worry about it. But I enjoyed the times that I met with him to talk with him. And that gave me like a sense of feeling of a father.

Dan Rather:
Do you think he loved you?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes. I think he cared about me. Uh-huh. I don't otherwise I don't think he would have done the things that he did if he didn't care about me.

Dan Rather:
I'm gonna say in advance, this is probably a tough question. But, do you consider him a racist? In your mind and heart, was he a racist?

Essie Mae Williams:
I don't know that at heart he was. I think he did what he did to promote his career. But, he I never heard him using any negative words or maybe statements about black people in general. He never did that.

Dan Rather:
I was going to come back to the question, you've told me what was in your heart. But, do you believe that he was a racist?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, like I said, I don't believe he was a racist at heart. And when the times changed, he changed, it as far as the public was concerned. And he came all out for black people. They start voting for him and everything.

Before, I guess they weren't able to vote before that, but when they started to vote. And then, I think more of the person he really was came out. And he didn't have to fight that racism anymore.

Dan Rather:
When was the last time you saw him?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I guess about three, four years ago. I used to come I used to go to Washington every year, but I'd start having problems from some accidents I had on my job, and I didn't do it.

Dan Rather:
The last time you saw him, you said three or four years ago?

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, let's see, about '97. Probably around '97.

Dan Rather:
Was he still of sound mind at that time?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes. I noticed he slowed down because he was…walk very fast. And he started to walk down with his walking. Because, see that was just in 1990-- about 1997.

Dan Rather:
Tell me about that conversation, was it much of a conversation? What did he say?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, the general things that I mentioned, about the nutrition, the exercise, the family, and so forth. And before, I used to always, could practically walk from 30th street -- street station to the office. And if I had lots of times [SIC] I did that a lot times. But in the few years before that, he would have his chauffer to take me back to the station. And I appreciated that.

Because, as I got older, I didn't wanna do all that walkin'. And of course there were cabs there too you know. But he would-- he did that for me also, he'd have the chauffeurs to take me back to the station home.

Dan Rather:
Your story's going to strike any number of people as remarkably similar to the story of Sally Hemmings and late president Thomas Jefferson. When you began to read about that, did you say to yourself, "That's sort of an earlier version of what I've lived?"

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes, yes I realized there some parallel there. However, this is a father daughter relationship, whereas Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hennings was a love relationship -- between a man and a woman. So, that was the difference I think. And she'd had several children understand, by Thomas Jefferson.

Dan Rather:
When you're thinking about the relationship of your mother with Strom Thurmond, historians tell us that there were a great many of these kinds of inter-racial relationships in the south. Was that your experience? Do you think that's true?

Essie Mae Williams:
I know of many relationships and I've read about it and heard about it from other people. It was a common thing in the south. And I think the reason maybe you're hearing more about this is because of the position he had reached in life. I mean, he was well known. But, my story is not any different from all those other people that had similar types of relationships up there inter-racial relationships.

Dan Rather:
Do you think such relationships were common?

Essie Mae Williams:
I think they were pretty common. Because, the black people were suppressed and they were, these relationships were based, they more or less did what they wanted to do. They sort of took advantage of the black people. And the way things were, I suppose many of them were probably afraid to say anything.

Dan Rather:
Do you think it was basically another situation?

Essie Mae Williams:
That part I don't know about. As I said before, how long they had the relationship going on, I don't know. But, I understand that after she left and I was born, she didn't see him anymore after that. So, what went on before that, I don't know the extent of it.

Dan Rather:
We've been talking about the historical framework in which your mother's relationship with Strom Thurman happened.

Your life and in that vein given that you've said you thought this was a lot more common, these kinds of interracial intimate relationships than anybody at the time spoke much about.

Do you think that Americans of African-American heritage have a better understanding of what the reality was?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
--than whites?

Essie Mae Williams:
Definitely. I do.

Dan Rather:
Tell me about that.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, because there were many things that went on and things happened to people. They were afraid to complain. Because they didn't know what might happen. They could have been in serious trouble. And whereas with the Caucasian people, these are things that maybe some of them heard about. But many of them did not hear about. So I don't think they even knew the extent of what was happening.

Dan Rather:
I didn't ask before, but just for the record, Strom Thurman, when he had this relationship with your mother, he was not married at that time?

Essie Mae Williams:
No. He was not. In fact, he didn't marry for a long time. He married after he became governor. And see this had happened back in 1925. And I think he got married somewhere around 1947 or '48.

Dan Rather:
Boy, when you think about the state of race relations in the United States of America in 1925, did a black person have any power in South Carolina in 1925?

Essie Mae Williams:
None. I would say none. No power whatsoever. They were sort of at the mercy of those other people.

Dan Rather:
Did your mother ever talk to you about that?

Essie Mae Williams:
She didn't talk about the racism or anything. And it became an accepted thing, you know? But she didn't talk about that very much at all.

Dan Rather:
I should have asked you before. At any time in any of these meetings with your father were there any outward expressions of affection or love? For example, did he hug you? Did he kiss you?

Essie Mae Williams:
He -- Whenever I come in, or he would always hug me when I come in. And when I'd leave he'd hug me. Yes. But he never came out and said, "I love you." But he sort of showed it by his expressions.

Dan Rather:
Did you feel love from him?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes, I did. Uh-huh . I did.

Dan Rather:
And how did you feel about that?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I felt good that at least my father cared something about me. It made me feel better.

Dan Rather:
And the fact that he supported you at least to some degree.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
Would-- one doesn't wanna read too much into it because it was in his best interests to do that, fair to say.

Essie Mae Williams:
Uh-huh.

Dan Rather:
So far as you know, did he deny at any time that you were his child?

Essie Mae Williams:
Never. In fact, when I first met him and the first time he's seen me he said, "Well, you look like one of my sisters. You've got those cheekbones like our family." So that was like almost an admission without saying, "Yes, you are my daughter." But yes, he never said anything negative about that.

Dan Rather:
Well, now, how and when did you tell your children about--

Essie Mae Williams:
When they were teenagers. In fact, the first time when he came to Los Angeles he was speaking at a major church there. And on Wilshire Boulevard. And he had called me and said he would be there. And he said, "Why don't you come over and bring the children that--" so that he could see them.

That was the first time he'd seen them. And at that time before we went I had to tell them because I, up until then, I had not told them about him. And since then he's seen my youngest son -- the one who's a doctor up in Seattle, WA., area. And he saw Wanda, who's here with me today, because, when he came another time, he was there to I don't know. Giving a speech or something somewhere.

We didn't go to that. We went to his room at the hotel. And we talked with him for a while. And then, of course, we left. But the other children he has not seen since then. He's only seen Wanda and Ronald since they've grown up.

Dan Rather:
What was the reaction of your children when you told them?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, they were kind of surprised. But they were glad to know they had a granddaddy even though it wasn't the typical type of relationship. But they asked me lots of questions, you know? And of course, and this is why I'm even doing this because of my children.

Because I had thought one time about writing a book. And I started it. And about my life story. So I could leave that for them. But in the meantime, I stopped at some point and I didn't get back to that. So my daughter encouraged me. She said, "You should. You should go ahead and write your book."

And I said, "Well, I will. I'll think about that." In fact, when I started getting all these questions, see, I would say 50 or 60 years now this thing has been following me. So the fact that I am coming up now to talk about it is like a burden lifted. Because I had this secret. And even though many people did know about it, I hadn't gotten it off my shoulders.

So this is what I wanted to do. To talk about it-- because of my children. And be a legacy. And also to let people know about why all these years I didn't say anything. Because there have been those questions, "Why are you coming out now?" As I say it was and also it's a part of history. It's a story that needs to be known. And so this is why I decided to come out and talk about it. And to bring closure to all of this.

Dan Rather:
Fair or unfair to say that you might not have gone to college had he not financed it?

Essie Mae Williams:
I probably wouldn't have because I didn't have the money. My aunt and my uncle have been very good to me. But they didn't have money to send me to college. And when I went to nursing school starting out, that was being paid by the government. Because they needed nurses so badly they had set up nursing school and was paying for our education.

But then after I decided I didn't want to do that, that's when I had talked with him and told him that I thought I'd like to go to college. He says, "Well, where do you want to go?" And I said, "Well, I haven't decided." So he said, "Well, why don't you come to South Carolina?"

He said they have a very nice college there, South Carolina State. And I said, "Maybe I'll do that." So then I applied and then I left that August to go away to school. So that's how I happened to go there. And it was a change from being in Pennsylvania. You know, some time young people like to get away from home.

And I guess that helped too, you know? And I had relatives down there. I had some relatives in Orange-- not in Orangeburg but-- Orangeburg is where the school is located. But I had relatives in Edgefield (PH). I had lots of relatives there. In fact, there are probably some there today. But I'm not in touch with them.

Dan Rather:
You're not in touch with them. What's kind of interesting as I think about it, he acknowledges at least implicitly, really more than that, that you're his daughter. He encourages you to go to college. But under the circumstances with a lot of men, the last thing they would have wanted you to do is come to South Carolina where they are to go to college. He would say, "Well-- you know-- go up there in Pennsylvania or Maine or Canada some place." Why do you suppose he suggests you come to South Carolina?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I'm not sure why. Once in a while I'd get to see him. Maybe more so down there than I was in Pennsylvania. I never made a trip from Pennsylvania to go there. But once I was there then I did make the trips to Columbia once in a while.

Dan Rather:
Any indication that besides financing the college that he helped pave the way to get you into the college?

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, that was not a problem. I had a good high school record. And I was able to get in. He didn't have anything to do with my being admitted to the college.

Dan Rather:
Do you think he had anything to do with you getting the jobs you had in college?

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, no. Not at all. It was-- many of the students had jobs on-- on-- campus. Many of them because that was their spending money. And he didn't have anything to do with that.

Dan Rather:
So you did that of your own?

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, yes. Yes.

Dan Rather:
Now--

Essie Mae Williams:
I had secretarial skills. So I was always able to get a job.

Dan Rather:
Now, when it came to your children, did he help with your children's education in any way?

Essie Mae Williams:
No. But, not directly. But when he recommended Ronald to the Navy, it was a recommendation. He went to the University of Washington where he got his medical degree. And first.

When he finished there then he went in the Navy to pay the government back, more or less, by giving them five years of service. But after that he didn't want to stay. He came out and, of course, set up his own practice.

But it's usually the reverse. You go in the service first then you come out and get your education. But because of his recommendation he was able to do it-- get his degree first. He helped in that sense. But they-- he has never given any of them money.

Dan Rather:
But I want to make sure I understand this. As a senator, senator, the doctor, needed to pay back his government loans, as a senator, Strom Thurman helped him get into the Navy where he could pay back with five years of service what he had owed the government for his medical--

Essie Mae Williams:
That took my son a long time to pay that back. It was several years-- to pay that back. But he paid it all back.

Dan Rather:
Well, how proud you must be. You have one son who's a physician.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
Another son who's an attorney.

Essie Mae Williams:
And my other son is working with the MTA up in the Seattle area.

Dan Rather:
Mass transit.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yeah, and it's just the two sons. Then I have the two daughters. My one daughter is doing social work up in Washington. And the other daughter here-- Wanda's here today. And she's with me. And she's also doing a great type of work in her field.

Dan Rather:
Which is?

Essie Mae Williams:
She's in the computer field.

Dan Rather:
Computer field. Take a look at this. And what a job you've done, you and your husband. Raising a wonderful family of children. Was Strom Thurman proud of that in any way? Did he ever express--

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, yes. He thought they were very lovely children. Uh-huh .

Dan Rather:
Indeed, they are.

Essie Mae Williams:
In fact, when my first child was born, he was born in Koso (PH), Pennsylvania. And on one of my trips to Washington I took, he was about six-months-old. I took him to Washington with me. So when we went to visit, of course, he was just a baby. We went to visit him. And that was the first time he'd seen his first grandchild for the first time.

Dan Rather:
What was his reaction?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, he thought it was -- he was a beautiful baby. And, of course, there were a few more after that. But I had the four children. He didn't see the others until they were older. He was the only one he saw when he was a young baby.

Dan Rather:
Was your older son?

Essie Mae Williams:
My oldest son.

Dan Rather:
But he met the other children--

Essie Mae Williams:
He met all of them. Remember when I said he was speaking at this church. And I took them over on Wilshire. And that time, after he finished his speech we went up and I introduced him to all of those for the first time. And he was very elated. He was glad to see them because they were teenagers.

Dan Rather:
What was his mood? What was it-- did he beam? Or did he--

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes. Because these were his first grandchildren even though he wasn't around very much. He thought I had a lovely family. He always thought that I was a lovely person. That's why he was helpful to me because he felt like I deserved it.

Conclusion: Essie Mae On Thurmond


  • Rebecca Leung

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