The recent death of Essie Mae Washington-Williams at age 87 serves as a fascinating reminder of the strange juncture between the traditions of race and sex in the American South of the 20th century. It has elements of politics and sociology that are distinctive and, yet, undercover.
Washington-Williams was a dignified widow and grandmother who lived in South Carolina. She was also the interracial daughter of one of the most notorious segregationists of his era: the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
The oddity and incredible nature of this bit of history must be viewed in context.
Thurmond, in his public pronouncements, was hardly passive on the topic of race. He represented South Carolina in the Senate from 1954 until 2003, the year he died at age 100. He was a Democrat until 1964, when he switched to the Republican Party. He was moved to change parties by his passionate opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was also motivated by a desire to prevent the “mongrelization” of the south.
As governor of South Carolina, Thurmond ran for president of the United States in 1948 as the candidate of the segregationist States Rights Democratic Party, the so-called Dixiecrats. He was motivated to run by the decision of President Harry S. Truman to order the desegregation of the U.S. Army and to support the elimination of poll taxes, which discriminated against Black voters. He won 2.4 percent of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes.
The man who was such a strong advocate of segregation was yet involved as a young man with Carrie Butler, a Black teenage maid in the Thurmond household. Together, they became the parents of Washington-Williams, who kept secret the identity of her father until after his death in 2003. Thurmond never acknowledged his Black daughter publicly during his lifetime. But by her own account, Washington-Williams received visits and money from Thurmond over the years. Yet she was never able to have the kind of relationship with her father that all children deserve.
It is a story with mind-numbing hypocrisy, but not an uncommon one. It has elements that date back more than a century before Thurmond’s birth, with the story of President Thomas Jefferson. It seems that the nation’s third commander-in-chief, too, had behaved outside the mores of race in his era in Virginia. Jefferson, a slave owner, fathered children by his own slave, Sally Hemings. And they were far from the only scions of white southern nobility who strayed from their pronounced principles when it suited them.
And so, as we commemorate another Black History Month, it is important to note the interconnection of race and sex in the story of African-Americans and the people who dominated them. White southerners who have championed the dubious ideal of racial purity have not always followed that goal in their private lives.
It is worth noting that people who have talked the talk of racial separation have often failed – when doing so didn’t meet their needs -- to walk the walk.
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(Photos from left: Dennis Brack /Landov, Stephen Morton/Getty Images)