Strom Thurmond's black daughter

So the truth is out, Strom fathered a black daughter.

The point was underscored dramatically last week when the family of Strom Thurmond, the former United States senator who died last June at the age of 100, dropped decades of denials and acknowledged that Thurmond had fathered a daughter with a black maid in the family household in 1925. The daughter, a retired teacher named Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 78, had periodically denied Thurmond’s paternity for the public record but had passed on the truth to her children, who pressured her to come forward after Thurmond’s death.

Like most stories of its kind, this one would have died out long ago had it not been carried on the tongues of black South Carolinians, who recognized the story of Strom Thurmond and Essie Mae Washington-Williams’s mother as a universal story of black families across the state.

It was not, however, the official story. The biographer Nadine Cohodas dismissed it as a “legend in the black community” a decade ago in her book, “Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change.” Another writer of the South described it as apparently without foundation – a phrase that is used all the time to dismiss the black oral tradition as apocryphal.

In the 1998 biography, “Ol’ Strom,” however, a journalism professor, Jack Bass, and a Washington Post reporter, Marilyn Thompson, went back to the oral stories of black South Carolinians, some of whom knew the household, as well as the accounts of a black elevator operator who recalled seeing a light-skinned black woman riding the elevator to visit Thurmond when he was governor.

How could Thurmond, who sought the presidency on a segregationist platform in 1948, have lived publicly as a racist while secretly helping to support a black daughter?

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