COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The claim of a retired mixed-race teacher living in Los Angeles that she is Strom Thurmond's illegitimate daughter should not come as a surprise to South Carolinians, biographers of the late senator say.
On Saturday, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 78, told the world that the nation's oldest and longest-serving senator and one-time segregationist was her father. Her mother was a teenager and a Thurmond family maid. Thurmond died in June at age 100. During his lifetime, Williams denied reports that Thurmond was her father, calling him a family friend.
"Essie Mae has proven what was not documented but what was widely believed," said College of Charleston professor Jack Bass, who wrote about Williams in "Ol' Strom," co-written with Washington Post writer Marilyn Thompson. "The part that's new - that's really new - is Essie Mae Williams' decision to come forward with her story and further details about their personal relationship."
Some of the people who had been closest to Thurmond, including his widow, said they knew nothing about it.
"I really don't know anything about that story, so you'll need to talk to someone else," Nancy Moore Thurmond said. The couple separated in 1991.
"I have never heard of any of this from the senator or anyone," said Columbia Republican Sen. John Courson, Thurmond family friend and political protege. "This is ludicrous. It is absolutely bizarre."
"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.
But for many in South Carolina, it was the worst-kept secret in the state.
"I've heard all my life that Strom had an outside child," said state Sen. Kay Patterson, a black lawmaker and Thurmond friend who delivered a eulogy at his funeral.
Cecil Williams worked part-time at South Carolina State College during the 1940s. He recalled seeing then-Gov. Thurmond come to campus in a "big black Cadillac" to visit student Essie Mae Washington.
"It was the hush-hush talk," Cecil Williams said. "He visited other parts of the campus. It was not that he just came down to see Essie Mae."
Even then, many people thought Thurmond had a special relationship with the young black girl from his hometown. "It was openly recognized, at least in the black community, that he had an ongoing relationship with this woman," Bass said.
Washington-Williams is coming forward now at the urging and encouragement of her children, her 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 said.
"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."
In a statement released Saturday, Williams said Thurmond had acknowledged her privately as his daughter and had provided financial support through the years. She will discuss her story Wednesday at a news conference in Columbia.
Former state Democratic Party Chairman Don Fowler said he doubted the revelation would amount to much because "the guy's dead, his affection for ladies has been known. I don't think anybody is going to pay any attention to this even if it is fully corroborated."
But the Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he hopes Williams' story leads to a conversation among South Carolinians about the historical relationship between blacks and whites.
"I just find it to be an irony that while (Thurmond) was one of the people talking about separation of the races ... that he had an intimate relationship with one of those people," Darby said. "It's one of the things the South needs to face up to."