I remember where I was one week before Christmas in 2003. I was glued to the television along with most of America listening to the revelation of one Essie Mae Washington-Williams. She eloquently told America that the rumors were true and that she was indeed the daughter of Strom Thurmond. Her children had convinced her that she should come forward since Strom Thurmond had died. Convicted in her heart that her descendants should know all of their heritage, there was no reason to further keep the secret that several in certain circles knew anyway. This past Sunday, Essie Mae Washington-Williams died of natural causes at her home in South Carolina.

Her death has revisited the news caused a firestorm in 2003. In our Internet age, everyone had an opinion. In the black community Washington-Williams was both praised and vilified. Old timers in the South again forced to realize that everyone knew the shameful secret of a silent brotherhood — sexual terrorism and abused suffered by black women some of whom were former slaves turned maids and ‘help’ if you will. Thurmond’s sin was finally out and Essie Mae Washington-Williams was the proof. The media spin called the relationship between her parents an affair. We know that there were genuine white male-black female relationships and marriages from records and photographs. But most of those unions were based on love and at great risk to the men. I don’t know of any that fought as fiercely as Strom Thurmond did to keep segregation alive. I could be wrong and research will tell. But for now Thurmond’s not so secret daughter remains the most scandalous.

Washington-Williams appeared to be a noble and upstanding woman who loved her father. Thurmond did after all acknowledge her, though secretly. Some accused her of taking hush money all these years. No doubt that the money paid for her education and the education of her children. When Washington-Williams’ husband Julius Williams died in 1966, Thurmond sent money to supplement the family income. What would they have Washington-Williams do? I suppose she could have refused the money and lived just fine. But Washington-Williams had respect for her peculiar situation and for whatever reason honored the unspoken agreement until Thurmond died. I cannot pretend to know what was in Washington-Williams’ mind and I won’t judge her one way or the other. How many of us in the exact same situation would do something different?

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Photo credit: Lori Shepler, Los Angeles Times / February 5, 2013