In South Carolina, when the subject of favorite son Strom Thurmond and his illegitimate, biracial daughter comes up, the first thing you invariably hear is, “At least he took care of her.” The comment pithily conceals as much as it backhandedly reveals. It has the same breezy effect as the knowing wink and the throaty chuckle. Like its brethren, it superimposes cordiality. It hints at a vague, unacknowledged understanding, but above all it maintains silence.
“At least” reveals that the speaker isn’t blithely unaware of the carnality of the days of legalized segregation. The speaker has a not too indelicately explicit understanding that–as in most relations between conquerors and the conquered–white men leveraged their position to obtain sexual favors from black women. Some would say that all such relationships carry a stigma and should be characterized as rape. Others might hold out the possibility for deeper intimacies, despite the overwhelmingly lopsided pressures on black women. But the stories and their particulars aren’t lingered upon. Like much else having to do with racism, lynching, civil rights-era violence and, yes, even slavery, it’s a taboo subject, a vale of tears that many people feel is best left alone. That is why, when Strom Thurmond’s secret daughter is spoken of, it’s with the immediate interpolation that “at least” Thurmond was better than generations of white men who treated their illegitimate, biracial children with comparative ungenerosity.
The modern South is often admired for its courtesy, but the courtesy between the races that so often surprises Northerners reflects, in reality, a prickly truce, a bargain made in the aftermath of the painful civil rights battles of the not-too-distant past. These days segregationists are rarely held to task, so long as they never overtly promoted lynching. On tours of many of the historic plantation estates of Charleston, South Carolina, the word “slave” is carefully avoided; instead black slaves are described as “servants.” History is evaded–sometimes overtly distorted–so as to avoid any confrontation over integration, white flight and the unfinished civil rights revolution. This brittle truce, unhealthy but functional, is at the heart of the social adjustment of the modern South.
A culture of silence exacts a heavy toll. It allows the strange coexistence of Confederate Memorial Day celebrations and Martin Luther King Day parades, of public buildings and bridges named after former segregationists and streets named after civil rights leaders. But it also entrenches attitudes, leaving vast segments of the population disillusioned, their anguish internalized, their expectations diminished. It may not influence day-to-day interaction between the races, but in the sphere of politics, a culture of silence siphons the energy for progressivism; it curtails discourse and emboldens reactionary conservatism.
There is little in Essie Mae Washington-Williams’s memoir, Dear Senator, that will challenge this culture of silence. On the contrary, Dear Senator is primarily an unapologetic account of keeping silence and the curious psychological manipulations this requires. Now 78, Washington-Williams has lived in California for the past thirty years or so, but substantial stretches of her formative years were spent in South Carolina and Georgia, where she absorbed the Southern tradition of “shutting up” in the face of racial unpleasantness. Late in 2003, following the revelation that she was Strom Thurmond’s secret daughter–a revelation that startled many white but few black people–Washington-Williams was briefly at the center of a media blitz. Dear Senator tries to make her story resonate with the power of the truth revealed, even though “the truth” was conveniently revealed only after her biological father’s death, and dismayingly late in Essie Mae Washington-Williams’s long life.
Washington-Williams’s peculiar journey began in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where she was raised by her aunt, who she believed was her mother until the age of 13. Coatesville was a small town, but racially mixed. Washington-Williams was shocked when she first glimpsed hard-core Southern segregation in the town of Edgefield, South Carolina, the locus of her newly discovered heritage. Unbeknownst to her, she was the progeny of a 16-year-old cleaning woman and the scion of an important white Southern family. When she turned 16, Essie Mae journeyed to Edgefield to visit her biological mother, who escorted her on a fairy tale-like, impromptu visit to her biological father, Judge Strom Thurmond of the law office Thurmond and Thurmond.
The still-young Thurmond was handsome, educated, authoritative, and Essie Mae’s mother gazed upon him as if he were a demigod. “You have a lovely young daughter,” Thurmond told her. Essie Mae writes that she longed to hear him say, “We have a lovely daughter.” But his manner disowned her. Yes, he was full of avuncular advice, but little warmth, and physical contact was strictly limited. The boundaries established at this first meeting would not change for the rest of Thurmond’s life.
The adolescent Essie Mae is skeptical of her mother’s insistence that Judge Thurmond truly loves her, that they would be married if not for the prejudices of the Deep South. She is surprised by the way her mother absolves Thurmond’s idolization of the legendary bigot Ben Tillman. “All that hate talk is just politics,” her mother says, to Essie Mae’s surprise. Surveying the miserable living conditions of her Southern relations, she is unimpressed by Thurmond’s benevolence. When, shortly after her visit to his office, $200 is secretly spirited to her mother’s home, she writes:
Didn’t my father want to see me again? He could have come, just as she did. Were they trying to buy my mother off so that she wouldn’t shame them in some way? Was there any love here, or was this some kind of hush money?… I went back into the filthy toilet, locked the door, and broke down in tears.
Though Washington-Williams describes herself as conflicted, she refuses to break with her father. Despite other options, she accepts Thurmond’s offer to fund her education at South Carolina State in Orangeburg. At this point a note of resignation and compliance creeps into Dear Senator, and it worsens over time. In her determination to always “try to look on the bright side,” as she puts it, the adult Essie Mae Washington-Williams comes to resemble her mother. Tellingly, the words “hush money” are never again used in the accusatory sense.
Meanwhile, Thurmond climbs the political ladder. First he becomes a South Carolina governor (later a senator). As he ascends, so does his racist vitriol. In 1948 he runs for President under the auspices of the self-proclaimed Dixiecrat Party, whose slogan is that segregation is essential “to the protection and purity of the White and Negro races.” “I wasn’t sure if this was my father talking, or the ghost of Adolf Hitler,” Washington-Williams writes. Elsewhere she writes of her cash allowance, observing that he was “a false father, but he was certainly a generous one.”
Essie Mae’s mother dies, in dire circumstances, ignored in her last days by Thurmond, who by then has married the first of two wives. Yet not even this convinces Essie Mae that it’s time to unburden herself morally. She marries, and when she tells her husband she is Strom Thurmond’s daughter, he is shocked. He discourages her from accept ing Thurmond’s “Benjamin Franklins.” But the secret meetings, and the monetary gifts, continue. By the mid-1950s, when Thurmond filibusters a civil rights bill, Essie Mae merely appends a woeful “Oh daddy.” She has grown accustomed to his ways. When she does confront him, she appears, like her mother, to largely accept Thurmond’s explanation that his racist stances are “just politics.” It’s a sad full circle.
The rest of Dear Senator is more of the same. Essie Mae Washington-Williams complains of a distant father who treats her with less than parental affection–“segregated love,” she calls it. Given the social pressures of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, for those decades she remains a sympathetic character. However, she becomes less sympathetic in later decades–still agreeing to secret back-door meetings, still protecting Thurmond’s secret, still denying that Thurmond is her father when asked point-blank by journalists.
For obvious reasons, Washington-Williams seems all too ready to believe in the “new Strom Thurmond” who emerged in the late 1960s and ’70s, a reconstructed, progressive Southern leader. This is a patronizing myth concocted by Thurmond’s publicity machine. Having defected from the Democratic to the Republican Party, Thurmond adapted to the phenomenon of a growing black electorate. He did so by making a black appointment here and there, and showing the simple decency to support black colleges. He resisted civil rights legislation (or was dragged tooth and nail into supporting it) and, most tellingly, resisted large-scale federal programs on behalf of the poor and minorities. Under Thurmond’s speciously benevolent stewardship, South Carolina lagged near the bottom in most indices of quality of life, in level of education, nutritional standards and environmental cleanliness. He treated the poor and minorities the same way he treated Washington-Williams–with plantation-master pork-barrel politics, social band-aids and buy-offs, but no real love. Washington-Williams fails to see the analogy.
The title Dear Senator suggests a personal letter addressed to her father, but it’s a soft-spoken letter indeed. The obvious questions you would expect her to ask her late father–Dear Father, if you have abandoned your segregation policies and if you regret your earlier stances, why can’t you and I appear in the light of day and at least eat in public? How can this be 1990 and yet you won’t share a Coke with me in public because I’m half black?–aren’t pointedly raised.
In fact, if Strom Thurmond had bothered to include Washington-Williams in his will, the truth might never have come to light. But Washington-Williams’s “generous” father failed to leave her any of his “Benjamin Franklins,” so she got a lawyer and sued the Thurmond estate; within months she was interviewed by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes. (The suit was resolved when the Thurmond estate acknowledged her paternity.) If her story had been revealed earlier–merely as a point of fact–it might have provoked a long-postponed conversation in South Carolina about its violent history of racial domination. It might have encouraged a profound re-examination of what segregation and Southern racial hysteria were all about. It could have exposed the hypocrisies buried beneath the South’s culture of silence. But Washington-Williams blunted the impact of her story by withholding it for so long, and by failing to reflect on its meaning when she finally got around to telling it.
“In a way, my life began at seventy-eight, at least my life as who I really was,” Washington-Williams writes. But the reader feels more pity than pride. No one has an obligation to be a hero, and Washington-Williams was born into an awkward and unusual situation that she did not choose, but it is difficult to find much courage in Dear Senator. For most of her life Essie Mae Washington-Williams sold her truth to the highest bidder, namely her father. As a woman of independent means, residing in California, working as a schoolteacher, the power to live without subterfuge had lain in her hands for quite some time. But she chose to remain silent, and this silence is the real story of her memoir, Dear Senator–the story of a lifelong compromise with white supremacy.