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Essie Mae And Big Daddy Strom

Recently I had the fascinating privilege of meeting and helping to interview Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the recently revealed illegitimate daughter of Strom Thurmond.  She identified herself publicly a few months after the extremely senior Senator from South Carolina died at age 100.  (He'd been living at Bethesda Naval Hospital the last couple of years, transported to work by corpsmen, on the taxpayer's nickel.)

She has written a book (no surprise here) called Dear Senator that is a fascinating and—to my mind, at least—very sad story.  She spoke and signed books at our church after services yesterday, and then we had lunch at the minister's house with a group of her family members.  She was the moderator at the last church that our new minister served.

Essie Mae grew up in a small town outside Philadelphia with a couple she believed were her parents until she was 13, when her biological mother came to visit and introduced herself.  A few years later, her bio-mom took her to meet her father, without mentioning in advance that he was Caucasian.  (Years later, when she took her own children to meet him, she also neglected to mention this detail, according to her daughter.)

As was the case for many of us, she apparently blossomed once she moved to California in the early 1960s.  She was widowed with four children but managed to finish a degree and then taught for decades in L.A. She is a charming, intelligent and commanding presence.

Though her father never publicly acknowledged her, she met with him at intervals over the years and he helped her financially, cash only, so that she would need to fly to the east coast to pick up the envelope and then return home the same day.

The Thurmond family was initially very huffy but has since acknowledged her lineage.  Strom married for the first time at 44 and had no children from that marriage.  In the late 1960s he married again, this time to a girl who had lived across the quad from me at Duke my freshman year. He was 66 at the time. They had four children, three of whom survive.  Both his wives served as Miss South Carolina, and while there are no photographs of Essie's mother, she is repeatedly described as beautiful.

Essie is 80 this year.  She's been on book tour and was on last week's New York Times Bestseller List. At one signing in South Carolina, she signed 1100 books.  She seems to be having the time of her life, and she's certainly earned it.


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