COLUMBIA, S.C. — When Essie Mae Washington Williams revealed that she was the mixed-race daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, there was a rush to transform this gracious, dignified school teacher into a symbol of 200 years of tortured Southern history.
Here, finally, was proof that the old order, symbolized by the grand old patriarch of South Carolina, was corrupted to the core.
Here was the irony that could only be found in Dixie, where the races, it turned out, were not so separate after all.
But Washington Williams, who will be eulogized Saturday in services at West Columbia’s Brookland Baptist Church, proved, in many ways, to be a reluctant symbol.
Once unburdened of her decades-long secret, Washington Williams served as balm rather than burden to a state still wrestling with the old ghosts of slavery and segregation.
The Thurmond family responded in kind, quickly acknowledging her as kin and arranging to meet.
Hers was a “lesson in deep, deep and profound respect,” said Frank Wheaton, the lawyer-friend who represented Washington Williams in 2003 and who will be among those who eulogize her Saturday. “I think she serves as an example we have never seen before.”
Out of respect for Thurmond, Washington Williams, who died Monday at the age of 87, waited until after his death, at 100, to reveal a secret she had kept since she was 16.
She came forward, she said at a 2003 news conference in Columbia, at the urging of her four grown children, who deserved to know of their lineage.
Washington Williams, with her proper, grandmotherly demeanor, never showed animosity toward a man who never acknowledged her publicly throughout his life.
“We respected each other,” she would say.
In an age of video revelation, she never sat on Oprah’s sofa. She never saw herself as a victim, and she dismissed any notion that her mother, Carrie Butler, a teenage maid who worked in the Thurmond family home, was victimized.
“Oh, no,” she told The State newspaper in 2004. “I think they cared for each other.”
What she chose to remember was the easy confidence of her mother, who arranged for young Essie Mae to meet her father during a trip to Edgefield, S.C., for a funeral. Only then did she learn her father was white.
In her memoir, “Dear Senator,” she lamented the lack of a father-daughter relationship with Thurmond and certainly wished that her parents could be together.
She decried the rigid system of segregation that kept her birth parents apart and blacks second-class citizens.
But there was never any hatred for a man who once railed that “all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”
Through the years, as he rose to power as an ardent segregationist and keeper of the status quo, they kept in touch.
Thurmond slipped envelopes of cash to her mother and the aunt who raised her to help with her care. When he was governor, Thurmond paid her tuition at then-South Carolina State College and visited her on campus, riding in his black limousine from Columbia to Orangeburg.
“Cynics would say that Sen. Thurmond didn’t love Carrie Butler, that he took advantage of her and then for decades paid off Essie Mae with occasional checks and paid her way through S.C. State,” said Bill Hine, a retired South Carolina State University history professor.
But instead, Hine said, Washington Williams chose to take the higher ground out of deep respect for her mother and, by extension, the senator.
“I guess the word would be discreet,” Hine said. “She handled it in a very dignified way that I think was respected by South Carolinians.”
Her unwillingness to skewer Thurmond may have disappointed some. Why she waited so long confounded others. But her elegant composure, her bearing, was what made Essie Mae Washington Williams an American story, Wheaton said.
“Where would she have gotten by hating? We would not be here,” Wheaton said. “I think it worked out exactly the way it was supposed to work out.”