The story always had the quality of a fairy tale -- or maybe a paperback romance. The scion of a prominent white southern family -- nationally known as a virulent segregationist -- was said to have secretly fathered a child with his family's black maid in the early 1920s.
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He was said to watch over the child from afar -- sending gifts, making stealth visits -- offering help as she went to college, married and raised a family of her own.
It may sound like a novel, except the story is true. And now, just over a year after she first disclosed her identity as the oldest daughter of the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, Essie Mae Washington-Williams is coming all the way out of the shadows in her new book, "Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond." The tome about her famous father -- and all but forgotten mother -- along with newly discovered material in the late senator's papers -- shed new light on their relationship as well as the complicated business of race, sex and family.
"Many of the civil rights leaders, for example, thought that I should have come out. It might have helped civil rights," she said of her decision not to publicly identify her father until after his death in 2003. "Well, we don't know that, what it would have done, and I didn't come out because I did not want to say or do anything that would damage my father's career. And it was no advantage to me, too, to do it either. So it was just something I didn't talk about."
Washington-Williams, 79, said she had other reasons to keep the secret. "During the time that he was such a staunch segregationist, I didn't want people to know he was my father. I wasn't proud of him," she said. "Of course, I changed and felt better later, after he did sign for the civil rights and Martin Luther King's birthday, and so forth. I felt a lot better about him."
A Mysterious Relationship
What remains a mystery, even now, is how Thurmond felt about her. The father and daughter first met when Washington-Williams was 16, and continued to meet until the last years of his life. At the meetings, she said, he was friendly but distant, especially at the beginning.
"It was very formal, more or less, at first, but as I got to see him -- which I did at least once a year or more sometimes -- if he came out on the West Coast," she said. "I know the very first trip that he made out, he spoke at some Methodist church [in] downtown Los Angeles. And he told me that he was coming and would I bring the children with me. He knew about the children because he'd been helping us all along. And I said yes."
Washington-Williams' daughters recalled how she prepared them for her visit. "The long and short of it is she wanted us to meet someone, and then she told us it was her father," Wanda Terry said.
Monica Hudgins added: "She says, 'Well, my father is white. And not only is he white, but he's Sen. Strom Thurmond.' Well, we didn't know who Strom Thurmond was."
Once they got to the church, Hudgins said, "We were just in awe, but it was just a weird situation … and then we actually walked across and shook his hand, and, I mean, he just held on to each of our hands as, you know, we went by."
Terry added: "He held on to our hands very tightly. He looked at us -- and I mean he really stared at us."
A Lifetime of Financial Support
Over the last 10 years, the daughters said, they spoke with Thurmond by phone about every other month, but the visits dropped off as both Washington-Williams and her father aged.
But the financial support that Thurmond had given Washington-Williams since she was 16 continued, especially after her husband died suddenly in 1964, leaving her to raise their four young children alone. The money, which Thurmond had generally given in person, began to arrive via an emissary, the senator's nephew, Thurmond Bishop.
Washington-Williams said she would fly from Los Angeles to the Atlanta airport, meet with Bishop for about a half hour, receive an envelope of cash from her father, and get on another plane back home. "It was cash at that time because that's the way my father wanted it. He didn't want any written records," she said.
She said Bishop later took over the funding, sending cashier's checks. Bishop declined to speak with "Nightline."
Whether the money was given out of love, shame or expediency remains a matter of conjecture, though Washington-Williams said Thurmond never asked her not to talk about it.
In the wake of Washington-Williams' decision to come forward, researchers have gone back through the Thurmond archives at Clemson University in South Carolina. Librarians apparently discarded a decade of Thurmond's personal letters, which Washington-Williams said included some of hers. But the researchers did discover some previously overlooked correspondence between the two.
Some of the letters refer to promissory notes, suggesting the payments were loans. Washington-Williams said the payments were never intended as loans, but the arrangement was "just set up that way in case there was some question about it." She eventually complained to Bishop and he stopped having her sign papers referring to loans.
The surviving correspondence is a poignant record of a young woman's search for connection with a family she barely knew.
"Nightline" found a packet of Father's Day cards from 1991 that underscores the hurt feelings involved. There were handwritten cards from Thurmond's two youngest children and a greeting card from Washington-Williams. Thurmond sent typed responses on Senate stationery to all three, but wrote "I love you" to the younger children and signed them "Daddy." The letters to Washington-Williams sent kind regards and best wishes and were signed, "Sincerely, Strom Thurmond."
"Maybe some day he thought it would come out," she said. "I don't know why he kept all those papers, but he did."
Raised by relatives in Pennsylvania, Washington-Williams grew up not knowing her mother, who, unbeknown to her, lived about 30 miles away with another child. She believes her mother and father were fond of each other.
"Whenever I'd go to visit him, he'd always ask about my mother. And of course, when I told her that I had seen him, and she wanted to know how he was, she'd ask about him. They were asking about each other through me."
As his political career advanced in the late 1940s, Thurmond -- who had been considered something of a racial moderate -- soon embarked on a political course that would mark him forever. In 1948, Thurmond, outraged over President Truman's embrace of civil rights, became the leader of a breakaway group -- the States' Rights Party -- also known as the Dixiecrats. He eventually became the group's nominee for president, running on a platform of complete segregation of the races.
He later opposed the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 integrating schools, and he staged the longest filibuster in Senate history against a civil rights bill in 1957.
Washington-Williams said she would confront her father about his views. "I would say, 'Why do you say all those things?' He told me, well, that's the way the South was, that he wasn't the one responsible, and he said that's the way it's always been. I said yes, maybe you're in a position, maybe you could help to change that. He said, 'Well, one person can't do that' … He was very defensive."
Washington-Williams said she prefers to believe Thurmond's public face did not match his heart.
"Remember, he has helped so many students in South Carolina -- black students -- and even though he might have been saying the things as far as segregation's concerned, the people down there think he's wonderful because he was so good and would do so many things for them. Anybody who wanted help, they could get help from him."
One thing Washington-Williams clearly regrets is that so much of her relationship with her father remained unresolved at his death. "I think maybe … even after he retired, he could have acknowledged me publicly. He didn't do that," she said.
And she wishes he had made amends for his actions. "I think it would have been a wonderful thing if he had apologized," she said, adding, "Well, not necessarily to me, but I mean to the black people in general."
ABC News' Michel Martin filed this report for "Nightline."