Black Commentator views the article reprinted below, written in
1996, as an intriguing, many-layered piece of sociology. We believe
the story speaks as much to conditions and behaviors in the Black
community of an earlier era, as it does to the insane world of white
racists. The article is also posted at http://www.thoughtcrimes.org/.
linking Sen. Strom Thurmond with Essie Washington have been woven
into the fabric of Southern political folklore.
the two share a special relationship, but is she really his daughter?
photo from a 1948 South Carolina State College yearbook features
the members of Delta Sigma Theta, to which Essie Mae Washington
belonged. Classmate Frank E. Cain said Washington "is very likely
the person standing third from the left rear in the photo. But
I simply cannot make a positive identification because I never
remember [Essie] not wearing her glasses."
(Click on image for close up of Elsie)
South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond was running for president in
1948 on the Democratic party break-away Dixiecrat ticket, he vowed
to keep blacks out of the institutions of white southern life.
"All the bayonets in the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes,
our schools, our churches and our places of recreation," Thurmond
said then in one of his speeches.
Many who still recall his fiery, segregationist rhetoric of that
turbulent period say Thurmond often referred to blacks as "niggers"
and swore they would never be allowed to darken the doorways of
At the same time he was preaching segregation now and forever, Thurmond
discreetly was financing the education of a black coed business
administration major at all-black South Carolina State College in
That fact, had it become known at the time, could
have ended Thurmond's remarkable political career before it even
got started, said Southern historian Robert Sherrill.
Thurmond's relationship with and support of this black woman
has continued to this day, according to the woman's in-laws and
members of Thurmond's Senate staff.
But those who knew of the unusual relationship back then
see no contradiction in Thurmond's championing segregation while
helping a young black woman get ahead in life, because the woman
purportedly is his daughter.
Thurmond, born at the turn of the century when the Civil
War defeat still hung heavy over South Carolina, has lived a life
that has spanned the 20th Century, which has seen considerable change
in southern ways.
And Thurmond, in supporting a black woman he supposedly sired,
remained loyal to one of the codes of his youth, said Bennettsville
lawyer Frank E. Cain, a classmate of the woman purported to be the
senator's daughter at South Carolina State in the late 1940s.
That code required white boys, who often learned about sex
"on the colored side of town," to take care of any children they
"It's just a carry-over from slavery where the white landlord
had his black family," Cain said recently. "That's the old South."
Thurmond, he said, sprang from those plantation roots. "Thurmond
hated black folks," Cain contends. "I think his reasons for helping
Essie were strictly personal."
The woman widely believed to be Thurmond's black daughter
is Essie Mae Washington, born in Thurmond's native Edgefield in
At the time of Washington's birth, her mother worked for
Edgefield's segregated school system, and Thurmond taught and coached
While Thurmond advanced from those humble beginnings to national
prominence, Washington has lived a life in the shadows. Six months
after she was born, her mother moved to Pennsylvania, where Essie
grew up and graduated from high school. She returned to South Carolina
to attend college, where she met her husband.
71-year-old South Carolina native has lived in south central Los Angeles
for more than 20 years, and is the mother of four children. A widow,
she continues to work as a counselor for adult education in a suburban
Los Angeles school system, and refuses to confirm or deny her blood
ties to Thurmond.
Mae Washington, now 71, lives in this house in the Los Angeles
suburbs. She refuses to confirm or deny allegations that she is
Sen. Strom Thurmond's daughter.
During a brief interview in June, 1994,
Washington said the senator "has been of assistance" to her, but
"I don't have anything to say on that. I don't want to say anything
that could hurt somebody who has done so much good," she said. "Why
don't you write about the good things he has done for people?"
When this reporter replied that he considered Thurmond's longtime
and continuing support of her to be one of the more remarkable things
he has done, Washington fell silent, and refused to answer any more
The story of Essie Washington is well-known in South Carolina among
people, black and white, who lived in the state and were active
in politics in the late 1940s and 1950s when this tale circulated
the same time he was preaching segregation now and forever, Thurmond
discreetly was financing the education of a black co-ed business administration
major at all-black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. That
fact, had it become known, could have ended Thurmond's political career
before it got started.
During those years, Thurmond, a highly decorated war hero, was at
the forefront of South Carolina
and national politics. He served as governor from 1947-51, ran for
president in 1948 on the anti-integration Dixiecrat ticket, and
won election to the U.S. Senate on a write-in vote — an unheard
of feat — in 1954.
The story of Thurmond's black daughter, or references to
it, has appeared in print before. On Oct. 11, 1972, The Edgefield
Advertiser, the newspaper in the small town where Thurmond
was born, covered its entire front page with the following provocative
headline: "SEN. THURMOND IS UNPRINCIPLED — WITH COLORED OFFSPRING
— WHILE PARADING AS A DEVOUT SEGREGATIONIST."
But the story inside the Advertiser, South Carolina's
oldest newspaper, provided no details about "colored offspring."
W.W. Mims, the newspaper's crusty, 85-year-old editor, has been
a foe of Thurmond's for more than 20 years.
A reporter for The State subsequently asked Thurmond
about the allegation, but the senator brushed aside the question
with a non-denial.
Former South Carolina journalist Marilyn W. Thompson, who
had worked on the story over a 10-year period, penned a lengthy
account of her research in the Aug. 4, 1992, edition of The
Washington Post, where she now works as an editor.
One of Washington's classmates claims that a reference to
Thurmond having sired a black daughter appeared in The Pittsburgh
(Pa.) Courier, a black-owned newspaper that continues to
Albert A. "Blue" Kennedy, vividly recalled that the Courier
ran a lengthy article in 1949 or 1950 focusing on Washington and
her family ties to Thurmond. A search of back issues of the Courier
on file at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., failed to
confirm Kennedy's recollection. The newspaper's current owners do
not have copies of the Courier from that period.
Kennedy said that Thurmond, governor of South Carolina at
the time, never denied the Courier's story. "What got me
was, there was never a protest or never an argument from his side,"
Kennedy said in a phone interview. "One thinks he protests too little."
was never a protest or never an argument from his side. One thinks
he protests too little."
A. "Blue" Kennedy
Mims said his front-page headline also did not draw a denial from
Thurmond, who was then serving in the U.S. Senate.
Kennedy was the first graduate of South Carolina State School of
Law in 1950. Julius Williams, Kennedy's friend who married undergraduate
Washington, a business major, while in law school, was the second.
Both men graduated in 1950, Thurmond's last full year as governor.
The law school was opened during Thurmond's term so the state could
continue to bar blacks from the University of South Carolina School
of Law. The courts had sanctioned the separate school for blacks.
Kennedy remembers that Thurmond came to the black university's campus
often during his years as governor to visit his daughter. Those
visits — which Kennedy refers to as "special audiences" — took place
in school president Miller Whitaker's office, out of sight of the
But Leo Kerford, a professor at the law school at the time,
recalls seeing Thurmond and Washington together on campus. "He would
come and visit and sit out on the center court with her," Kerford
said. "He wasn't trying to hide it."
"It was so well-known," he said, "I believe it was a fact. The talk
was that he would visit her and hand her money. Her girlfriends
in the dormitory would wait for her to come back with money from
Kerford said such conduct was not considered unusual at the
time, even though Thurmond was the nation's leading political voice
for segregation. "That's how he got his start, by yelling 'nigger'
louder than anyone else."
An official currently with the college confirmed that Thurmond had
paid Washington's tuition on at least one occasion.
Cain, a 1951 graduate of the law school, also remembers those
visits. "Gov. Thurmond used to come over to the college quite frequently,"
he recalled. Cain said Thurmond would arrive in his "big, black
Cadillac limousine" with the state flag flying from the fender and
a South Carolina patrolman at the wheel.
He said he saw the governor's car on campus once or twice
a semester, but never actually saw Thurmond. Each time, word would
quickly spread among the students that the governor had come to
visit his daughter.
Cain said Washington would be summoned to the president's
office, and would sometimes enter the administration building, known
as Miller Hall, through the back entrance. "[Thurmond] would come
to the administration building and meet the girl in the president's
office," Cain said.
Modjeska Simkins, a longtime civil rights activist who died
in 1992 at the age of 92, was leader of the state NAACP when Thurmond
was governor. Simkins told a story about visiting President Whitaker
and being interrupted by his secretary, who announced that the governor
was there to see his daughter.
She said that the president explained to her that the governor's
daughter had violated curfew, and that Thurmond was down to have
a talk with her.
Simkins said that it was long-believed in the black community
that Thurmond had fathered a black daughter, but because "he did
right by her" no one would talk about it while he was still alive.
After the Oct. 11, 1972, edition of his newspaper appeared,
Mims said Thurmond was asked about the allegation by Jack Bass,
a reporter for The Charlotte Observer. Mims said Bass later
told him Thurmond responded by saying Mims had better watch himself,
but did not deny the allegation itself.
John Wrighten, who refers to himself as "professor/attorney,"
filed the lawsuit that led to the creation of South Carolina State
Law School. Wrighten, now living in New London, Conn., said he,
Julius Williams and Washington were close friends during law school
and afterwards. Williams tutored him through some of his classes,
and Washington typed his law school papers during her senior year.
"I don't think she was Thurmond's daughter," Wrighten said,
"I believe it was a fact."
Wrighten remembers many occasions — in the school cafeteria,
at parties and on campus — when women at the college would tease
Washington about being Thurmond's daughter.
"She was quite dignified," he said. "She would never even
look at them."
Wrighten said he heard "never a word from her mouth, never
a word from her husband's mouth" about Washington's relationship
to Thurmond. "There were so many half-white children at South Carolina
State College when I went there five or six girls you couldn't distinguish
from white girls." He said Washington was in that group.
Washington's sister-in-law, Charlotte Johnson
of Savannah, said that when her brother married, "He told us she
was Thurmond's daughter. Essie said the same thing."
Johnson said she initially was skeptical of Washington's
claimed birthright. But she became convinced it was true because
"whenever she was in need of money (after college), she'd say she
was contacting him, and then she would come back with the money."
Robert, a cousin of Washington's late husband, confirmed Johnson's
Chris Cimko, Thurmond's press secretary, said that there
have been no inquires regarding Washington during her tenure, but
that she "had read all the reports." Cimko had nothing to add to
Thurmond's 1992 statement that he did assist Washington with her
tuition and that she "occasionally drops by (Thurmond's office)
when she is in the area."
As Thurmond prepares for his eighth run for the U.S. Senate,
one of South Carolina's most persistent rumors about its most durable
politician remains unresolved.
Ken Cummins is an investigative reporter and contributing
editor of City Paper in Washington D.C.
Cummins was an investigative reporter and contributing editor of
City Paper in Washington D.C. when this story was first published