Part IV: Williams On Thurmond

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

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.

Dan Rather:
Now, did he meet any of his great-grandchildren?

Essie Mae Williams:
No. I have four of them. The youngest one is just 2-years-old. She was 2-years-old in November. And that's one of my daughter's grandchildren. And then, the others are all up in Washington.

Dan Rather:
So through your mother and through you he has four--

Essie Mae Williams:
Great grand-- so there were five generations when he was living. You see? There were five generations. With him, me, my grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. Anyhow, there were five generations. Now there are only four. But there were five of us living at the time.

Dan Rather:
There was Strom Thurman. There was you.

Essie Mae Williams:
Right.

Dan Rather:
There were your children.

Essie Mae Williams:
And then my children.

Dan Rather:
And--

Essie Mae Williams:
And then my children's children. So they-- my great-grandchildren. His great-great grandchildren.

Dan Rather:
So now five generations. Four now that he's passed.

Essie Mae Williams:
Then, of course, he started a whole new family once he was married.

Dan Rather:
When we first came to you, we at CBS News and 60 Minutes II, which has been some while back. You were extremely reluctant to, one, talk about the situation. And, two, certainly to--

Essie Mae Williams:
That was right after he'd passed.

Dan Rather:
Why was that?

Essie Mae Williams:
I still wasn't doing any talking. I didn't want to talk about it even after he passed. So that was the reason. Although you did send two lovely young ladies out there. I still wasn't ready to talk to them.

Dan Rather:
I remember that. Yeah. I was saying to myself, "Well, Strom Thurman has now passed on. Why wouldn't she want to talk about it?"

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, it took time for me to do this.

Dan Rather:
Well, now-- and we're talking about just in recent days, the Thurman Family has acknowledged finally publicly that you are his child.

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, they want to welcome me to the family now.

Dan Rather:
And what's it like to hear that? To know that finally?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, it's nice to hear it. But Nancy, his wife, and her children, they were nowhere around when I was born. And I had this relationship that I with him that was very good. So when they made that announcement-- it didn't have any great effect upon me 'cause I was there before they were.

Dan Rather:
You knew.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
But it must be nice, if it isn't, tell me, to be vindicated if that's the proper--

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.
Dan Rather:
--word to say, "Okay. I knew. But I couldn't let others know. I didn't let others know." And then there was the silence on the part of the family. But now they've come forward. They've welcomed you into the family. Or at the very minimum we acknowledge that you're a member of the family. There must be a certain sense of satisfaction about that.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, there is. I don't know how much they knew about it. I imagine they may have heard about it. So many other people had at the time. But that part I don't know. The only one that I know that knew about it was their nephew and the sister. Those were the only two that I actually knew that knew about it.

Dan Rather:
So-- what-- the people that you knew who knew about it on his side were a sister of his?

Essie Mae Williams:
One of his friend's sisters. Her name is Mary.

Dan Rather:
And the nephew handled the financial arrangements for--

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes. He's an attorney.

Dan Rather:
--very long-- fairly long period. Well, you've touched on this before. But let me ask you directly. Why did you keep it secret for so long?

Essie Mae Williams:
I didn't have any reason to talk about it. I didn't want to talk about it. And as I said earlier, he, of course, wouldn't want that to be known. And I didn't want it to be known. I didn't want people to know that he was my father. I didn't want that known.

It wasn't that important to me. Because I remember when I went to visit him in his office and he had just been elected governor. And we were talking. And he said, "Well, how does it feel to be the daughter of a governor?" But I couldn't even talk about it. I said, "Well, this is fine for you." I said, "It doesn't bother me at all." But I knew that I couldn't talk about it-- you know-- without harming him. But that didn't bother me at all.

Dan Rather:
But a lot of other people in the circumstances said, "I don't care whether I harm him. As a matter of fact, I rather like it--"

Essie Mae Williams:
I didn't feel that way. I didn't feel I wanted to hurt him or harm him. It was, what damage would that have been to me? You see? It would have hurt him. But it didn't bother me one way or the other. So I didn't want to talk about it.

Dan Rather:
And, again, you touched on this before. But tell me why you chose to come forward now.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, what I said was I think this is part of history. And I wanted my children to be informed of their background and relationships-- as far as blacks and whites are concerned. And I think this is good for everybody to know. Now, after this it's all out. Everybody knows now. And this as far as I'm concerned there isn't too much more to talk about now. We can end all the speculations and questions.

Dan Rather:
You've said that you see this as a part of history, part of our history as a country, as a people. What lessons can we all take from the experience of your life in your opinion?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I think that people should be, I guess, true to themselves. And I just believe in the truth-- you see? With him, had this been known or had I spoken out everything would be different because it may or may not have hurt him.

But I believe it would have hurt him had I come out and talked about this relationship. I think it might have hurt him. And I think that would totally have changed the history.

Dan Rather:
Wow. Let's be candid and have it out. If you had spoken out and come forward you could have been very highly-- probably would have ruined him politically.

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, yes. And I would not have wanted to do that.

Dan Rather:
You were a teacher. And a teacher for a very long time.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes, I taught for 27 years.

Dan Rather:
You taught values to students as well as arithmetic, writing and other subjects. For the rest of us when we look back on your life, what happened, the keeping of secrets for so very long, is there something here you think that the rest of us should ponder, should think about given your experience?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, there are many people maybe would not have done that. In fact, I read a criticism in the LA Times yesterday where some lady was upset because I hadn't come out and talked about this. She felt that it might have helped with some of the civil rights legislation and so forth.

But I don't, really don't know whether it would have or not. But I wanted to do what I wanted to do when I was ready. And I didn't want anybody forcing me to do anything other than that.

Dan Rather:
I saw that article in the Los Angeles Times. And there's been some of that and there'll be some of that.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, of course, she didn't understand. She was not in my position. So she wouldn't have understood all those things.

Dan Rather:
Didn't walk in your shoes.

Essie Mae Williams:
No. Not at all.

Dan Rather:
And there are already people who are beginning to say I haven't seen or heard a lot of them but they're there. And you must have known it was inevitable. Saying, "Well, this woman's coming forward now 'cause it's about money, what she does. It's all about the money."

Essie Mae Williams:
It is not about the money. There is no money. We are not making any claims. And we wanted the acknowledgement that we have. We got that acknowledgement. It was nice to have that. And I had wanted to write about this. And I had started it but I hadn't completed what I was doing. And then the other opportunities start coming.

Dan Rather:
The acknowledgement by the family came but only after you, in effect, went public.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes.

Dan Rather:
You agreed to do this interview and something with the Washington Post. So do you or do you not think that the family's acknowledgement finally came as a result of your saying, "Look. Now I'm gonna talk about it."

Essie Mae Williams:
I believe it did. I don't think they ever would have. I think it was because of the statement in the news had been reported, you know?

Dan Rather:
With a smile you said, "Listen, it's not about money because there is no money." But--

Essie Mae Williams:
As far as I know. I really don't know everything. So we're not after money.

Dan Rather:
So it's not a pressure thing for money?

Essie Mae Williams:
No.

Dan Rather:
Surely Strom Thurman was a man of means. I don't know. But at one time, certainly in the '80s, it was widely believed he was worth several million dollars.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I had read in the book years ago that he was one of the millionaires. And I asked him about that. And he said, "Well you know it's not really ever-- I have lots of properties and all that goes into it, you know?" And he didn't elaborate on it. But I mentioned that I had read it, you know? And of course, things he didn't want to talk about he quickly got away from the subject. But I had seen it in one of the magazines.

Dan Rather:
We're not going to dwell on this. My understanding, he put most of what he had into trusts which means that when he died I think I read that the official was something like $200,000. I don't want to dwell on that. I just want to get back just while we're on the subject of money. Just a detail or two. When he helped through his sister, through his nephew, sometimes by handing you cash, how much money are we talking about? Are we talking about thousands of dollars he handed you?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, I wouldn't want to go into the amount of the money. But it was -- it helped me, the amount that I did receive helped me quite a bit. But I don't want to go into figures.

Dan Rather:
Well, I can understand that and respect that. But it wasn't a pittance or was it?

Essie Mae Williams:
No. In fact, I have a good retirement. I've retired from LA Unified School District. And this has been my retirement. We were one of the few school districts that let their employees maintain their health, medical and eye. We don't pay anything for that. And that's worth something like $6,000 or $7,000 a year.

Dan Rather:
Easily.

Essie Mae Williams:
And I also get my Social Security. So financially I'm fine.

Dan Rather:
But in terms of the money he gave you over the years I was just trying to look for a range. It wasn't-- and I respect that you don't want to say what amounts that he gave you. But-- and money changes as the years goes by what might have--

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, it sort of increased because of the value of the dollar, you see? It did increase somewhere. And it was a tremendous help to me.

Dan Rather:
I'm not going to pressure you but it-- it wasn't $5 at a time. And it wasn't $10,000 at a time.

Essie Mae Williams:
No. No. Not those figures at all.

Dan Rather:
All right. It was helpful.

Essie Mae Williams:
It was very helpful.

Dan Rather:
You've been wonderful through this whole interview and particularly wonderful to sit here and listen to all these questions. And we're at the end.

But I want to give you an opportunity to say anything now that you want to say. If there's some question that I should have asked that I didn't ask.

Or if there's something you haven't said that you want to say that will put this in perspective and put it in historical perspective for our viewers and listeners. I want to give you an opportunity to do that.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, the main thing that I wanted to put emphasis on is the reason-- what I'm doing now. The reasons. And I did state those as far as the children are concerned.

As far as history is concerned and bringing closure. Those are the things I wanted understood. And not that I was after his estate or anything like that.

Dan Rather:
Because you aren't.

Essie Mae Williams:
I'm not.

Dan Rather:
Some future historian, maybe 50 years from now, 100 years from now, who looks back on this and who reads this and says, "Wow. What does this tell us about life in the United States in the mid- to latter-- portion of the 20th Century?" What would you want that historian to know above all else?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, they need to know what really happened. This is when I spoke about the truth. We really know that we really need to know that things happened during all those periods. And I guess the reasons for them and so forth. They need to know that because in future generations they need to know the true story about everything as far as the country is concerned. They need this information.

Dan Rather:
And based not just on your personal family history. But what you know about the region, the country and the time, you think there were many more intimate very personal relationships between African-Americans and Caucasians?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, yes. Those have been there. And now that we've gotten away from the segregation, people are free to do what they want now. And I think that was a wonderful thing that happened. But it took so long. But I think these are the things that are very important.

Dan Rather:
One more question. Did anybody ever threaten you? Did anybody ever say to you or infer to you, "You better keep your mouth shut for us."

Essie Mae Williams:
No. Never. I did keep my mouth shut in a sense that I didn't talk about this. But nobody ever said anything to me. I never had anything negative as far as all this is concerned to come out. And people didn't talk to me that much about anything. They might have talked among themselves. But they didn't talk to me about it. And maybe it's because I wasn't very approachable.

Dan Rather::
Mrs. Williams, you spoke in terms of this being a burden, all the while. Tell me a little more about that.

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, it wasn't anything that I constantly thought about, but it was something I was harassed about for many, many years. And now that we're trying to bring this to a closure, that's the burden I feel that I've gotten rid of. Because I won't have all these people asking me all these questions.

And as far as his feelings about other people, with me being his daughter -- I do feel that somewhat, it might have softened some of the ways that he felt about other people. And that's why I think he did the many things that he did to help other black people.

Dan Rather::
Because he had an African-American daughter?

Essie Mae Williams:
Because he had-- yes. Because of the relationship, I think it did help. As far as some of the things that he did later.

Dan Rather::
If I can follow up, then, a little. If we look at Senator Thurmond's personal history. As he was coming up as a young politician, for his time and place, South Carolina in the late '20s and '30s, he was seen as, I won't say a moderate, but in the context of the place and times and race relations at the time, at least a bit progressive. For example, he came out for schools for African-Americans, at a time when many said, "Listen, they don't need schools."

But then, in the 1940s and particularly near the end of the 1940s, he became a champion of segregation, ran the Dixiecrat Party, all of those things. And then, somewhat later in life, he began to, if not soften, at least ameliorate to some degree, those public stances. Now, having gone through that, my question is that, as he got to know you as his daughter, do you think that had some effect on him?

Essie Mae Williams:
On him? I do. I think it was a very positive effect, because of the things that he did after that, to help others. So, I definitely do think that.

Dan Rather::
Did he ever talk to you about that?

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, he told me about some of the things he'd been doing, and I had to talk with him about his accomplishments, as far as black people were concerned. He did talk about it. He wanted me to know that he was doing positive things, in spite of the segregation. He wanted me to know that.

Dan Rather::
You said you were harassed some over the years. What form did that harassment take?

Essie Mae Williams:
Well, it's just that, for example, when I was in college, I would have all these questions and heard about the rumors, and so forth. And then, I think even before he died, people would come and ask. For example, even this past week. I wasn't doing too much talking. And there were people who came to my door. And would wait, to, in fact, one of the persons I guess was so desperate that the young man who puts my trash out once a week, and they saw him coming from my house.

And they asked him, was he part of the family? And he said, "Oh, no. I just put the trash." Then he started asking him questions about me because he couldn't get to see me. I wouldn't open my door. He couldn't get to see me. And he started asking the young man questions. So. And then of course, he came back and told me, you know. He was from one of the major newspapers.

Dan Rather::
This kind of thing, you say was harassment.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes. That's the part that's harassing. You know, when a person keeps asking you, and you don't feel up to talking about it -- at some point, they give up, I guess. But I never felt pressure to talk. I never, because I'm talking, is because what I decided to do, not because of pressure.

Dan Rather::
You just decided you were gonna be mum.

Essie Mae Williams:
Yes, because that's the way it was, the way I felt. And then when I felt I was ready, of course, then I came out.

Dan Rather::
It occurs to me to ask you, I should have asked you early on, did at any time your mother or anybody else indicate to you that Senator Thurmond would have had additional relationships, or another relationship, with another person of color besides your mother?

Essie Mae Williams:
Oh, I don't think that she knew anything about that. In fact, I don't, after she left from there, I guess it was around in the early '40s -- she left from the South. She had married and had a son. And of course, that was my brother, he's deceased now. And she died at a very early age. She had kidney problems, and she passed. But she didn't have any contact, or know anything about what was happening in his life at that time, other than maybe what she read in the paper.

Dan Rather::
Keeping in mind that there were, as you said, rumors around from as early as when you were in college, if not before, has any other person of color come to you and said, "You know, I think I'm also Strom Thurmond's child?"

Essie Mae Williams:
No, I have not heard that. I've not heard that at all.

Dan Rather::
Well, neither have I.

Essie Mae Williams:
That may be true, but I don't know about it.

Dan Rather::
Well, I thank you again for coming. Thank you very much.

Return to Part I: Essie Mae On Thurmond