Family Accepts Woman's Claim of Thurmond Heritage

ByAmy Geier Edgar via via logo

C O L U M B I A, S.C., Dec. 16, 2003 -- The oldest son of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond says he is ready to meet the mixed-race half-sister his father kept secret for nearly eight decades.

Strom Thurmond Jr., the U.S. attorney for South Carolina, sayshis family will not contest the claim of Essie MaeWashington-Williams, a 78-year-old retired teacher who lives in LosAngeles.

Williams announced this past weekend she was the daughter ofStrom Thurmond and a 16-year-old maid working in his father's home.

"We have no reason to believe Ms. Williams was not telling thetruth," Strom Thurmond Jr. told The (Columbia) State for a storyin today's editions.

Despite the nearly five-decade difference in their ages,Thurmond Jr. said he was looking forward to meeting the retiredschoolteacher and establishing a relationship. He plans to do thatin private.

"As far as emotions or how I feel, I feel good, because that'sa feeling you get from doing the right thing," Thurmond Jr. said.

Williams had long been rumored to be Thurmond's child, thoughshe previously denied it. She came forward now at the urging andencouragement of her children, said Frank K. Wheaton, Williams'attorney in California.

"She waited until after his passing because she had such aprofound love and respect for her father and so did he for her …they both shared a mutual respect that raised the bar of integrity,as we generally know it," Wheaton said today on ABCNEWS' GoodMorning America.

Thurmond died in June at age 100.

The family doesn't know much about Williams, Thurmond Jr. said.

"I had a conversation with my dad about it about 10 years ago.I asked about this, and he didn't tell me whether she was orwhether she wasn't [his daughter]," he said. "I did not askagain."

Thurmond Jr. and the rest of the family found out about thestory shortly after attending the wedding of the former senator'syoungest son Saturday.

Thurmond Jr. and other family members would not return severalphone calls from The Associated Press.

Earlier Monday Thurmond's family released a statementacknowledging Williams' claims.

"As J. Strom Thurmond has passed away and cannot speak forhimself, the Thurmond family acknowledges Ms. Essie MaeWashington-Williams' claim to her heritage. We hope thisacknowledgment will bring closure for Ms. Williams," the family'slawyer, J. Mark Taylor, said.

Williams was to discuss her story at a news conference Wednesdayin Columbia, but one of her sons, Dr. Ronald Williams of Onalaska,Wash., told The State he will tell her it would be better to meetprivately with the Thurmond family than talk to the media.

Williams is glad to see the matter resolved, her South Carolinalawyer Glenn Walters said.

"Mrs. Essie Mae Washington-Williams can now take a place inhistory as a daughter of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond," Walters said.

Williams said Thurmond privately acknowledged her as hisdaughter and had provided financial support since 1941. She saidshe waited to go public because she didn't want to embarrassherself or hurt Thurmond's career. The Washington Post firstreported her claims on its Web site Saturday.

"There was an agreement between the parties that she wouldnever discuss the fact that Senator Thurmond was her father,"Walters said. He said Williams was not seeking money and did notwant to challenge Thurmond's will.

"This case was never about money, much to the surprise of many.Essie Mae Washington-Williams merely wanted validation,acknowledgment, so that she could bring finality and closure to herlife. She wanted this for her children and their children and theirchildren," Wheaton said Tuesday.

In seven decades of politics, Thurmond gained fame and infamy asan arch-segregationist, but he later came to support a holiday forslain civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Williams claims Thurmond fathered her when he was 22 and livingin his parents' home in Edgefield. Her mother, Carrie Butler, 16,had been working as a maid in the Thurmonds' home.

Raised by an aunt, Williams told the Post she first met Thurmondaround 1941, when she was 16, and Thurmond called her a "verylovely daughter."

She told the newspaper she received money at least once a yearin sessions arranged by Thurmond's Senate staff. Wheaton said thetotal over the years was "very substantial" but less than $1million.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events