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."
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."