LOS ANGELES -- A 78-year-old retired schoolteacher is coming forward after years of silence to claim she is the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, her attorney said Saturday.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who lives in Los Angeles, had long been rumored to be the daughter of the one-time segregationist, who died June 26 at the age of 100. She is coming forward now at the urging and encouragement of her children, attorney Frank K. Wheaton said.
"She's decided to come forward to bring some closure to what has been thought to be an old family secret," Wheaton told The Associated Press.
"We're not trying to upset the Thurmond estate. We are merely bringing closure to Essie Mae's life, so her children have an opportunity to know from where they come, whether those ancestors are black or white matters not. It is part of our American history."
Williams told The Washington Post that Thurmond privately acknowledged her as his daughter and had provided financial support since 1941. The Post first reported her claims on its Web site Saturday.
Williams, who has scheduled a news conference in Columbia, S.C., on Wednesday, previously denied rumors that Thurmond, the nation's oldest and longest-serving senator, was her father.
"There was an agreement between the parties that she would never discuss the fact that Sen. Thurmond was her father," another of Williams' attorneys, Glenn Walters, told The AP. "He never denied that Ms. Washington-Williams was his daughter."
Walters said Williams was not seeking money and did not want to challenge Thurmond's will: "She simply wants the truth about her life to be told."
Those close to Thurmond said they were unsure about Williams' claim.
"I really don't know anything about that story, so you'll need to talk to someone else," said Thurmond's widow, Nancy Moore Thurmond. The couple separated in 1991.
"I certainly have no answer one way or the other," said Bettis Rainsford, a longtime family friend. "I'm sure the senator may have sowed some wild oats in his early days, but certainly I have no information about that."
Doris Strom Costner, a distant cousin of Thurmond's, said she doesn't think the claim is true.
"I don't appreciate anyone coming forth after he's dead, you know? It doesn't make good sense," Costner said.
Williams told the Post she waited until now to go public with her story because she didn't want to embarrass herself or hurt Thurmond's career.
"I want to bring closure to this," she said. "It is a part of history."
In seven decades of politics, Thurmond gained fame and infamy as an arch-segregationist, but he later came to support a holiday for the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
Williams claims Thurmond fathered her long before his political career started, when he was a 22-year-old living in his parents' home in Edgefield, S.C. Her mother, then 16, had been working as a maid in the Thurmonds' home.
If challenged by the Thurmond family, Williams is ready to submit to DNA tests, Wheaton said.
Williams said she has documents to validate her claim, including cashier's check stubs, mementos from Thurmond and a letter from an intermediary who delivered money from the senator. She provided the Post with a copy of a 1998 Thurmond letter thanking her "for the nice Father's Day note you sent me."
She told the newspaper she received money at least once a year in sessions arranged by Thurmond's Senate staff. In recent years, as the senator's health declined, she said, financial assistance was passed through a Thurmond relative in South Carolina.
Wheaton said the amount of money Thurmond provided over the years was "a very substantial amount" but less than $1 million.
Williams' mother, Carrie Butler, was unmarried when she gave birth to her in 1925. Butler's neighbors in the impoverished section of Edgefield helped feed and clothe the child, according to Post interviews with local residents.
Butler's sister, Essie, took the child when she was 6 months old to live with a married aunt, Mary Washington, in Coatesville, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb.
Williams told the Post she first met Thurmond around 1941, when she returned to Edgefield for a visit at age 16. Her mother was suffering from an untreatable kidney disease and insisted on introducing her to her father, Williams said.
In a meeting lasting 20 to 30 minutes, Williams said, Thurmond called her a "very lovely daughter."
"I was very happy. I knew I had a father somewhere, and it was wonderful to meet him."
Williams claims she had another conversation with Thurmond in 1947, when he was governor of South Carolina and a year away from running for president on a Dixiecrat platform of segregation.
"He asked her directly, 'How does it feel to be the daughter of the governor and not be able to tell anyone about it?"' Wheaton said. "She said it felt fine."
Associated Press writer Jacob Jordan in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.