The sexual relations that White men have had with Black women throughout America’s racial history has often given many a view that much of the creation of mixed race children was a result of rape. But, that is only half of the story. There have been unions where White men have fathered children with black women during Reconstruction and during Jane Crow segregation. Very few of these children were acknowledged by their White fathers, with most discarded as if some refuse fit only to be thrown onto the trash heap.
Ms. Essie Mae Washington-Williams is one Black woman whose White father refused to acknowledge her existence publicly to the world.
When Ms. Washington-Williams announced her plans to join the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), no one questioned the legitimacy of her claim to membership. She was undeniably the daughter of a so-called respected southern family that could trace its blood lines back to the Revolutionary War and beyond. However, although the family in question was White, Ms. Washington-Williams was Black–the illegitimate daughter of the late Senator Strom Thurmond and Carrie Butler.
Ms. Butler was a maid in the Thurmond household at the time, and was sixteen years old when she was impregnated by 21-year-old Thurmond, when she gave birth to his daughter, Essie Mae.
The question arises, of course, why Ms. Washington-Williams, who only revealed her lineage after the death of her father, would want to belong to an organization that, among other things, refused to allow Marian Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. What honor could lie in a Black woman joining the DAR? What is more, Ms. Washington-Williams also applied for membership in the Daughters of the Confederacy, a group with the proclaimed purpose of honoring those who fought to keep her Black ancestors enslaved.
It seems that knowledge and acknowledgement were more at issue than honor. Ms. Washington-Williams was inspired to apply for membership in the DAR by Ms. Lena Santos Ferguson. Ms. Ferguson was the grand-daughter of a Black woman from Virginia who had married a White man whose ancestor had fought in the Revolutionary War. Ms. Ferguson herself fought a legal battle in the 1980s to become a DAR member and won, but only after the government threatened to take away the organization’s tax exempt status. Ms. Ferguson’s settlement agreement also required that the DAR identify all Black soldiers who served in the Revolutionary War. Ms. Ferguson and her nephew, Maurice Barboza, founded The National Mall Liberty Fund DC. H.R. 2181 was also submitted through Mr. Barboza’s efforts to obtain recognition of Blacks who fought in the Revolutionary War.
Ms. Washington-Williams wrote of her life as Thurmond’s daughter in her book Dear Senator:
Ms. Washington-Williams stated she was joining the Daughters of the Confederacy in order to have access to resources that would let her further explore her lineage. Her actions have had another effect as well, almost certainly intended.
Ms. Washington-Williams, as well as Ms. Ferguson, have helped to bring light to a side of American history that has largely been hidden, ignored, and often denied: America’s racial interconnectedness.
There are those who wished she had spoken out while Thurmond was still alive, but, in the end, the decision was her’s to make.
In the end, it was what she could live with.
In the end, she showed herself to have more integrity and wisdom than the man who fathered her, but all through life, had not the courage to say to the world: “This is my daughter, of whom I am happy and proud to call my own”.
Black Women in America, by Darlene Clark Hine, et. al.