Essie Mae Washington-Williams is eulogized for the history books

mlucas@thestate.comFebruary 9, 2013 

— Essie Mae Washington-Williams was eulogized Saturday as a woman of grace and compassion, whose life story will be logged in the history books as an intriguing and, ultimately, American story.

The daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and Carrie Butler, a young black maid, Washington-Williams died Feb. 3 after an extended illness. Washington-Williams, who was 87, revealed the secret of her paternity in 2003, shortly after Thurmond’s death.

A retired educator who had lived most of her adult life in California, Washington-Williams moved back to South Carolina about five years ago, remaining in the Palmetto State until the end of her life.

Dozens of friends and family members from the Williams and Thurmond families, including state Sen. Paul Thurmond, the youngest of Strom Thurmond’s three surviving children with Nancy Thurmond, joined some 200 mourners in the sanctuary of Brookland Baptist Church, about two miles from the State House.

Mourners filed by her open casket in the hour preceding the service. Then it was closed and topped with a spray of red roses, white carnations and white snapdragons. Saturday’s service was followed by an entombment in Celestial Memorial Gardens in Lexington County.

“No one delighted more in our successes or could comfort me more,” said Wanda Williams Bailey, one of Washington-Williams’ three surviving children, who spoke at the funeral.

Her youngest son, physician Ronald Williams, praised his mother as someone who always encouraged him. “My mother never limited the focus of what I could do.”

She was, he said, “a woman of character who held secrets within her until it was safe and appropriate” to reveal them. With trembling voice, he thanked the Thurmond family for “making it so easy for her ... by embracing her.”

Although he never acknowledged her publicly, the late senator met with Washington-Williams throughout her life, providing financial assistance and encouraging her to enroll at what was then-South Carolina State College.

Thurmond visited her at the Orangeburg school while governor in the 1940s, and for years there were whispers in the black community of Thurmond’s black daughter. But Washington-Williams kept her own counsel.

Charleston journalist Jack Bass, who co-wrote the Thurmond biography “Ol’ Strom,” said the key word to understanding Thurmond’s life, and his relationship with his eldest child was “complicated.”

“(Theirs) was always a complicated relationship,” said Bass, who attended Saturday’s funeral.

At S.C. State, Washington-Williams met her husband, Julius Williams II, who became an attorney. He died in 1964, leaving her with four children to raise. Washington-Williams moved the family to Los Angeles where she would embark on a successful teaching career that would last for more than 30 years.

In 1984, reporter Marilyn Thompson investigated the long-standing rumor and traveled to California to interview Washington-Williams. Washington-Williams insisted she and Thurmond were simply longtime friends.

When she decided to break her silence, Washington-Williams agreed that Thompson, who was then working for The Washington Post, should break the story.

At a Columbia news conference shortly afterward, Washington-Williams unburdened herself of the decades-old secret and told about 250 reporters, “I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I am completely free.”

Essie Mae Washington-Williams was born in Aiken on Oct. 12, 1925. She returned with her teenage mother to live in the poor, black section of Edgefield known as Buncombe, where relatives assisted with food and clothing. At six months, Essie Mae fell ill, perhaps with pneumonia, and Butler decided she needed some help in raising her baby.

Butler’s sister, Essie, carried her namesake to Coatesville, Pa., to the home of another sister, Mary Washington and her husband, John. The couple adopted Essie Mae, and she grew up in Coatesville knowing nothing of the circumstances of her birth until she was 13.

That’s when the tall, willowy woman she knew as “Aunt Carrie” came into the kitchen and blurted out the truth. “I’m your mother, you know,” she told her. Butler had left Edgefield by that time, settling in Chester, Pa., in 1939.

When Essie Mae was 16, Butler returned with her to Edgefield for a family funeral. While there, her mother decided to introduce her to her father, first checking with Thurmond to see if it was convenient to pay a call at his law office.

As she entered the law offices of Thurmond and Thurmond, a tall, handsome white man greeted her. That’s when her mother revealed that Thurmond was her father. “You have a lovely young daughter,” he told Butler.

From that encounter, and in subsequent conversations with her mother, Washington-Williams determined that the two cared for each other, despite the segregated system that kept them apart and unequal.

Thurmond persuaded Washington-Williams to return South and attend college at South Carolina State College. But even then, he was a rising star among southern Democrats determined to forestall integration of the races.

That period of time, when Thurmond ran for president on the Dixiecrat ticket, was the most difficult, Washington-Williams would write in her memoir, “Dear Senator.” He had been married at age 46 to a South Carolina beauty queen, Jean Crouch, which Essie Mae saw as an abandonment of her mother, who was ill with kidney disease. Carrie Butler died in 1948 at the age of 38.

Throughout her life, Washington-Williams never displayed any public bitterness toward Thurmond and would often say the two had only mutual respect for each other.

It was this sense of grace in the face of societal pressures, her unwavering character and love of family, that many said Saturday she would ultimately be remembered for.

Frank Wheaton, the Los Angeles lawyer and friend who represented Washington-Williams in 2003, told mourners that early on he realized the importance of Washington-Williams’ story in the “placement of American history.”

He said the mother of four and grandmother of 14 would leave a legacy of conviction and strength.

“It is that lesson that America may learn to appreciate in the years to come,” he said.

Washington-Williams’ story would leave an “indelible mark in American history,” he added.

Wheaton, along with Doris Cochran, president of the Columbia Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, Washington-Williams’ sorority, and four family members spoke during the two-hour service.

After the service, Cochran and about 40 “sorority sisters,” stood outside the church in a sea of red dresses and hats – an homage to Washington-Williams, who was laid to rest in red. The sorority’s colors are red and white.

Cochran, who had met Washington-Williams a few times, described her as a “very lovely lady – eloquent and elegant.”

“She never sought fame,” Cochran said. “She just wanted to be respected.”

Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, a longtime friend of the late senator, also attended Saturday’s funeral, calling Washington-Williams a “class act.”

He recalled once spending a cordial afternoon escorting Washington-Williams around the State Capitol, where a monument to Thurmond now bears her name, along with the other four Thurmond offspring. He said the state Senate adjourned Thursday in memory of Washington-Williams.

For some, the funeral was a slice of history, a nod to Washington-Williams’ courage in breaking the silence surrounding the taboo subject of interracial relations, particularly during the 1920s Jim Crow era, at the time of Washington-Williams birth.

In the black community, “everybody knew it,” said Beulah Ross, a member of the Brookland Baptist choir. But for whites, “It was a shock for them, too. And to have them (the Thurmonds) acknowledge it was wonderful.”

Unwilling to embarrass her father, she waited until he passed away in July 2003 at age 100 before coming forward.

“She did it at the right time,” said choir member Betty Foggie, and Minnie Mayfield agreed.

“Nothing is done out of time,” Mayfield said. “That was her season.”

As an educator, Washington-Williams won numerous awards and commendations during her career. In addition, she received a master’s degree from the University of Southern California and an honorary doctoral degree from S.C. State University.

“Dear Senator,” written with William Stadiem, was nominated for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize and reached No. 8 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

She is survived by a son, Dr. Ronald James Williams and daughter-in-law Esther; two daughters, Wanda Williams Bailey and son-in-law Milton, and Monica T. Williams Hudgens and son-in-law Gerald; two half-brothers, Strom James Thurmond Jr. and Paul Thurmond; half-sister Juliana Witman; 14 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her husband, Julius and eldest son, also Julius.

At the end of her life, Washington-Williams suffered from what the presiding Rev. James A. Jamison would describe in his eulogy as an earthly sickness, which included a heart attack and the amputation of a leg.

“But she never failed to keep her faith in Jesus,” he said. Citing scripture from the New Testament, he said Washington-Williams had fought the good fight.

“Thank you, Dr. Washington, for fighting well, for fighting well,” he said.

Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657 and Click at (803) 771-8386.

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