Part II: Williams On Thurmond

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

Dan Rather:
I want to get the picture. You've been encouraged to go to college and helped to go to college by then Gov. Thurmond.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
He comes to the college and he asks how you are and he meets with you. How did you to college make any connection? Had there been rumors before that?

Essie Mae Williams:
Only from the students in Edgefield, and there were very few of them.

Dan Rather:
Edgefield is where your mother lived?

Essie Mae Williams:
From after where she was born, yes. She was born there, the whole family was born there.

Dan Rather:
So, there had been some rumors around your mother's hometown for years.
Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, yes-- yes. They all knew--

Dan Rather:
They all knew?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yeah, and Edgefield, that's a small place. They all knew.

Dan Rather:
So, it wasn't a rumor -- they knew.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, they heard about it, they didn't have any facts, but they heard about it.

Dan Rather:
Fair or unfair to say, around your mother's hometown in South Carolina it was common knowledge?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes, among the black people, it was common knowledge … And they didn't do too much talking to other people.

Dan Rather:
Well, in the nature of that time and place and where we were as a country, one could understand.

Essie Mae Williams:
…separation right. There was separation—

Dan Rather:
I don't understand why they didn't say very much. What I'm intrigued by this picture at the college. So, out of your mother's hometown, there'd been talk that they governor had a biracial, illegitimate child. And when he came to see you, that sort of said to others, "Oh, now we know." Was that the situation?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes. Yes.

Dan Rather:
Now, did any of these students taunt you or say anything to you?

Essie Mae Williams:
Me? No. They never said anything to me about it. They talked to each other perhaps, but none of them ever approached me. I had a roommate and she had informed me of some of the talk that was going around, but I just ignored it.

Dan Rather:
I think some people find interesting -- I find interesting, not everything has changed, but some things have changed. I would think today, that within minutes if not seconds after that situation developed in a college campus, it would be on the Internet and the next morning it would be in all the papers.

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, at that time, I remember the Ebony Magazine had heard about this and they sent a representative to the college. But I didn't talk to them about anything, and they wanted to know-- well, we know that you have contact-- he's helped you. I said, "Yes, as a friend." It was always as a friend. So, they didn't do a write-up because they didn't have anything to write about. So, that was my first contact from a magazine.

Dan Rather:
But, you stayed silent.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, yes because it wasn't to my advantage to talk about anything that he had done. It certainly it wasn't to either advantage of either one of us. And he, of course, didn't want it to be known -- neither did I. I didn't want it to be known either.

So neither one of -- we didn't have any agreement of not talking about it. We just didn't talk about it, neither one of us. And actually, he wouldn't you know. And I didn't want to do this.

I had been asked a question, "Why have you waited so long?" Well, because I didn't want to do anything to harm his career. And it wouldn't have been any advantage to me. So, I didn't talk about it.

Dan Rather:
When you first met him, he was an attorney.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
Then he embarked on his political career.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
And the next time you saw him, you were in college.

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, when I met him at 41, the second time I saw him was when he came back from the service--

Dan Rather:
Right.

Essie Mae Williams:
And I had a mess … he, my aunt and I went to Philadelphia to meet with him. He just wanted to see me and talk to me and see how I was doing. And of course that was during the time that I was in high school. I hadn't graduated yet.

Dan Rather:
Ok, so you meet him in 1941--

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
And he comes back from the way, you're still in high school.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes, about ready to graduate.

Dan Rather:
And so this meeting at the college in South Carolina happened in what year?
Essie Mae Williams:
1947.

Dan Rather:
OK. At any time did he say to you, "I appreciate you being quiet about this." Or, "Please don't say anything about this?"

Essie Mae Williams:
No, he never did say that. But, I had mentioned to him that some people had been trying to contact with me-- trying to get ask questions. And I said then I didn't give them any information because I didn't even want to talk about that. He said, "You don't have to," he goes, "You don't have to talk to them." But, he didn't say anything else beyond that.

Dan Rather:
I don't think I'd heard about the Ebony magazine reporter coming to the college after the first time he showed up in a limousine and—

Essie Mae Williams:
…the college at that time.

Dan Rather:
Did you talk to the reporter?

Essie Mae Williams:
No. No more than to tell them that I didn't have any information for them. They wanted to get my story, I said, "I don't have a story." And they went away; they didn't persist.

Dan Rather:
And so they didn't print anything?

Essie Mae Williams:
No, they didn't print anything.

Dan Rather:
So, he comes to the college that time, did he come back to the college anymore?

Essie Mae Williams:
I met him at that time, and then the next time was at the Governor's Mansion.

Dan Rather:
Well I happened to be in Columbia that weekend. Sometimes, I would go to Edgefield and visit Columbia. And I called and told him I was there. And he said, "Oh, well you can come over-- come over to the mansion."

So, I went over to the mansion. And it was a late afternoon. And we talked for about an hour. His talks were always on health, exercise, nutrition, and what I was going to do. And about his family, he would talk about his family. That's how I knew about his sisters and his other brothers.

But, I hadn't met them, but he would talk about them. He always talked about his family. And so, that was the extent of most of our conversations.

Dan Rather:
So, you went to the Governor's Mansion and met with him there. Did you see other people? Did he introduce you to other people?
Essie Mae Williams:
No. There was no one there at that time. And I was there for about 30-- 40 minutes. And, as I say, I was in Columbia, it was very close.

Dan Rather:
Now, what's happening with the money through all this time? Were you receiving some money from him?

Essie Mae Williams:
Usually, he didn't automatically just send me money. I had the money when I had to pay my tuition, and my room and board and so forth. And I'd pay it for the year.

And I had a job on the campus, so that was my spending money. I had worked for one of the teachers there doing secretarial work, because that was my major. And then I would pay my -- we ate in the cafeteria, they had two cafeterias, one for people who had to have special diet. So, I ate in the cafeteria, and I paid for that out of my own money. But, the major expenses though, I had enough money from him to cover that.

Dan Rather:
So, he took care of your tuition, did he pay your board and room?

Essie Mae Williams:
He-- room and board. Uh-huh.

Dan Rather:
How was that handled? How did the money come to you?

Essie Mae Williams:
It was always cash-- it was always cash.

Dan Rather:
And who delivered the cash?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, for years, I would make a trip to either Columbia, or when he was in Washington, I'd go to Washington. I left …in Los Angeles, I'd leave that morning, make the trip, a visit to the office, and then I'd return to Los Angeles the same day. I would go that morning. I didn't know anyone at the time. And then when my meeting was over with him, I returned home.

Dan Rather:
So, he would hand you cash?

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, he would have it all in an envelope, all counted out, you know, and-- tell me to be very careful-- you know, cause I guess people sometimes rob people, whatever. And he wanted me be [SIC] very careful with the money. I never had any problem with the money.

And then I-- when I was in Pennsylvania, I'd go down in the train…left for Washington. And then I'd go back that same afternoon and-- and then from Philadelphia I'd go to my own town. I'd have to get a local train to go there. So, it was like an all day thing, going and coming.

Dan Rather:
Well, but this time, he's progressed from being an attorney to being a statewide politician, now he makes his way to Washington, and you're coming to his office in Washington.

Essie Mae Williams:
I would go there once a year. I knew his secretary quite well. She's diseased now, but she was a wonderful person. And whenever I called to make an appointment, she would arrange it. And nobody ever said anything that to me about this situation. I guess it was some know of understanding.

These are things nobody ever talked about. I knew her quite well, and she had seen me so many times, she got to know me well. But, she never said anything about him.

Dan Rather:
Did he introduce you around his office?

Essie Mae Williams:
He introduced me. He would just-- Mrs. Williams-- they'd have him to meet. And I was from South Carolina, I wasn't living in South Carolina, but I was from South Carolina. And we…that she's from South Carolina you know. So... introduced me as a friend, yes.

Dan Rather:
Now, I'm gonna take you back to 1941, when you first met him. Did some money begin to come your way then?

Essie Mae Williams:
No. Not on a regular basis. He gave us some money before we left town. And I didn't receive any more money from him until after he returned from the war.

Except that the next day we got the money from his sister. She came over with one of her other sisters, and she talked to me and to my aunt. And she didn't hand it to me, she gave it to my aunt. Because I was, you know, very young and she let her handle it.

It was all-- everything was always cash, right. I've never received any checks from him. Any checks I received came much later, and they were not from him.

Dan Rather:
From whom did those checks come?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I don't want to mention any names, but it was one of his nephews. So, evidently he must have talked to his nephew. And what it is, he had bought some…and in the states somewhere and it was a business building. And the money that his nephew received from that-- he would send me a certain amount each year out of that. That's where the money came from.

That was a check, yes. But, first he would meet me also. And he said, you know, you shouldn't have to be-- but they'd always reimburse me for the trip. But he said, "You shouldn't have to make these long trips. I can just give the check and send it to you."

So he started me by checks. That's when the checks came in. Up until then it was always cash. Cause they didn't want a record of it.

Dan Rather:
They didn't want a record of it.

Essie Mae Williams:
Right.

Dan Rather:
Do you have any of the cancelled checks, or check stubs in-- anything of that sort?

Essie Mae Williams:
No, I would tear them out after that. However I do have some correspondence and reference to it. But, I don't have a copy of the check.

Dan Rather:I'm interested what you were thinking, and what's your motivation toward -- you never said anything, you never made it a big deal of this. You didn't even make a little deal of it. You made no deal of it.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I didn't-- I didn't feel I had a reason to do so.

Dan Rather:
And what did you think of him?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I thought he was a wonderful person. I know he had done a lot of things. I remember when I was there at the college, he opened up one of the first for the blacks. They didn't have any for whites. I mean, he had one for white, but not for blacks.

So, he was the one that opened it up. He did many things for many students. I'm not the only one that he helped, he helped other people too.

Dan Rather:
One reason I wanna pursue this is that it is because he is-- many of his public actions and his words indicated that he not only was a segregationist, but he was a champion of racial segregation. And by any reasonable analysis or standard, in the opinion of many people, he was a bigot. But, you have said…helped black people through college.

Essie Mae Williams:
He did. And there, for example Matthew Perry, became a federal judge, and he was recommended by Senator Thurman. And one of first administrative aides are to any of the senators he hired the first black. Of all the senators, he hired the first black administrative aide.

So, he did many things to help. And he helped with the black colleges. And then, when things start to turn with the integration, change with the integration, he was one of the first ones to start changing. That happened back in the 70's….

Dan Rather:
Do you ever talk politics with him?

Essie Mae Williams:
Very rarely -- very rarely. I did question him -- when I was in college. Why was he a racist, a segregationist at that time? And he said, "Well, that's the way things have always been."

And I said, "But, you know, you're in a position maybe you could do something." And he said, he was doing as much as he could at that time. So, he did. He definitely wanted to help all people, so there was no question about that.

Dan Rather:
But, he was so closely identified with segregation and "Segregation forever." He was so clearly in the public mind as a racist and a bigot, how did you feel about that at the time, when you read things about him and hear things that he would say, and see things that he would do.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, most of the things I did, I either thought in the media, but these are not things that we really talked about. He, I think basically was a good man. What happened when he, before he became a politician, I don't think all of this racism seemed to have come back after he became a politician.

And perhaps down there that was the popular thing for him to do. The people were very fond of him and they really liked him year after year. And he was their representative.

Dan Rather:
Did it affect you in anyway?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, it wasn't anything that I could do about it. I had talked with him, but it wasn't anything I could do about changing him or anything. I couldn't do that. But it was just when, I just went along and just not even talk about it.

Dan Rather:
You're a gentle person by nature. Were you ever tempted to tell him off? And say, "Listen you were wrong about these things?"

Essie Mae Williams:
No, not really, except the one time that I did ask about it -- and then of course he quickly answered that and moved on to something else. So, politics are something we did not talk about.

Dan Rather:
Let me concentrate on that conversation though. Your recollection is you said what to him about this?

Essie Mae Williams:
When I was in college I listened to him -- why did he make the comments that he …as far as segregation was concerned? And everything, as you know, was separate. And he pushed that. And that was the part that I didn't like, that I couldn't change him.

Dan Rather:
But, you said this to him when you were in college?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes, I did I re--

Dan Rather:
Why-- why are you doing these thing? Why are you saying these things?

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
And he said what?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, the kind of work that he was doing, he could not change the system. You know, and they, everything was definitely separated. And as one person I guess he could have move some influence. But, then that might have been the…. So I guess he did what was best for his career.

Dan Rather:
So, you…when you were in college. Fair to say he made pretty quick book of it and just said, that's the way it's always been?

Essie Mae Williams:
That's the way it's been. In other words, he's saying that he didn't start this. You know, that's the way it was in the south.

Dan Rather:
And then you moved on to other subjects.

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, yes. And then he moved away from the subject very quickly.

Dan Rather:
Do you ever recall raising it to him? Do you ever recall raising it with him on any other occasion? For example, did you ever, even with a smile, point out the irony if he had you as a daughter? When you go to him publicly, he was the face and voice of bigotry.

Essie Mae Williams:
No, I didn't. Not even jokingly, I didn't talk about that. Most of our conversations I said early were about other things. Politics, rarely, very rarely.

Part III: Essie Mae On Thurmond