COLUMBIA - "I always thought I had a fairly normal childhood, until I found out my parents weren't who I thought they were."
So begins the autobiography of Essie Mae Washington Williams, the daughter of longtime U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and a 16-year-old black maid who worked at his family's Edgefield home.
Ms. Williams came forward a year ago, after Mr. Thurmond's death, with the secret she had held for more than 70 years. Now her book, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond, deals with her relationship with the one-time segregationist who privately acknowledged her as his child but never spoke of her publicly.
The book, co-written with William Stadiem, is set to be released Jan. 27.
Ms. Williams was raised in Coatesville, Pa., by Mary and John Washington. Her world changed at age 13 when Mary Washington's sister, Carrie Butler, told Essie Mae she was her biological mother. Ms. Williams, now 79, yearned to know more about her other family. She got some answers a few years later when she returned to her native Edgefield to attend a funeral. Ms. Butler took her to a law office in town where Essie Mae first met Mr. Thurmond.
"He never called my mother by her first name. He didn't verbally acknowledge that I was his child. He didn't ask when I was leaving and didn't invite me to come back. It was like an audience with an important man, a job interview, but not a reunion with a father," Ms. Williams writes.
During one visit around 1946, Mr. Thurmond offered to pay her tuition at an all-black college in Orangeburg, now known as South Carolina State University.
"My connection to my father was hardly fatherly, however. It remained as distant as when I had visited him with my two mothers. Our surface dealings were precisely that, all superficial and completely unemotional, despite my inner turmoil."
Ms. Williams watched her father's career from afar. She attended his gubernatorial inauguration in January 1947 with her classmates. She watched her father and his family.
"This was my family, but I didn't know them and they didn't know me. In time, in time, I prayed to myself. If my father could change this state, with its Confederate flags flying and its Confederate soldiers standing vigil atop their obelisks, I had reason to hope he could change his own house," she writes.
Mr. Thurmond disappointed Ms. Williams as his political star rose. Over the decades, Ms. Williams tried to reconcile the fiery politician with the man who treated her kindly, providing money for her and her family.
"It's not that Strom Thurmond ever swore me to secrecy," she writes. "He never swore me to anything. He trusted me, and I respected him, and we loved each other in our deeply repressed ways, and that was our social contract."