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Mon, 10.12.1925

Essie Mae Washington-Williams, Teacher born

Essie Mae Washington-Williams

*Essie Mae Washington-Williams was born on this date in 1925. She was a Black teacher and author.

She was the eldest child of Strom Thurmond, a segregationist Governor of South Carolina and United States Senator, and Carrie Butler, a 16-year-old black girl who worked as a domestic servant for Thurmond's parents. Butler sent her daughter to her older sister Mary and John Henry Washington in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. The girl was named Essie after another of Carrie's sisters, who fostered her briefly as an infant. Essie Mae grew up with her cousin, seven years older than she, whom she believed was her half-brother.

Washington was unaware of the identity of her biological parents until 1941 when she was 16. Her mother told her the entire story then and took her to meet Thurmond in person. Although they had some contact for years, Washington and her mother infrequently met with Thurmond after that. After high school, Washington-Williams worked as a nurse at Harlem Hospital in New York City and took a course in business education at New York University. 

She did not visit the South until 1942, when she met relatives in Edgefield, SC. After growing up in Pennsylvania, Washington was shocked by the racial restrictions. She returned to the North to live with relatives during the war years. After Thurmond returned from World War II, she started college at South Carolina State College (SCSC) in the fall of 1947. Thurmond quietly paid for her college education.

She met and married future lawyer Julius Williams at SCSC in 1948. Her first child, Julius Williams Jr., was born in 1949. As a result, Essie Mae Washington-Williams dropped out of college in the summer of 1949 to raise the first of her four children. After he graduated from law school, they moved to his hometown, Savannah, Georgia, where he established a law practice and was active in the NAACP. They had two sons and two daughters together. Three children live in Seattle, Washington, and one daughter lives near Los Angeles. During the 20th-century American Civil Rights movement, Washington occasionally tried to discuss racism with Thurmond, known for his longtime political support for segregation but brushed off her complaints about segregated facilities.

Following the death of her husband in 1964, Washington moved again to Los Angeles, California. She received a bachelor's degree from California State University, Los Angeles, in 1969 and a master's degree in education at the University of Southern California. Washington-Williams taught for 30 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District from 1967 through 1997. She was a longtime Delta Sigma Theta sorority member, which she joined at South Carolina State.

Washington-Williams felt that she significantly impacted Thurmond during their private conversations on race and race relations and that Thurmond's policies toward Blacks were affected as a result. 1976, for example, Thurmond nominated Matthew J. Perry, whom she dated, to the U.S. Court of Military Appeals. Thurmond became the first Southern senator to nominate a Black for a federal judgeship. Washington-Williams did not reveal her biological father's identity until she was 78, after Thurmond's death at 100 in 2003.

When Washington-Williams announced her family connection in 2004, the state legislature approved adding her name to the list of Thurmond children on a monument for Senator Thurmond on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds. In 2005, when she spoke at their commencement ceremony, Washington-Williams was awarded an honorary Doctorate in education from South Carolina State University at Orangeburg. Thurmond paid for her college education and took an interest in her and her family all his life.

In 2004, Washington-Williams said she intended to be active on behalf of the Black Patriots Foundation, raising funds to build a monument on the National Mall in Washington D.C. to honor American blacks who served in the Revolutionary War. This organization became defunct the following year. Another group is now raising funds for the monument. In 2004, Washington-Williams applied for membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy based on her heritage through Thurmond to ancestors who fought as Confederate soldiers. She died before being accepted. She also intended to join the Daughters of the American Revolution.

In 2005, she published her autobiography, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond.  Essie Washington-Williams died February 4, 2013, in Columbia, South Carolina, at age 87.

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