CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who in 2003 revealed she was the biracial daughter of segregationist U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, died on Monday at age 87, her attorney said.
Washington-Williams, who had been in declining health in recent years, died of natural causes at a care home in Columbia, South Carolina, said lawyer Frank Wheaton.
Washington-Williams was born in 1925 to a black teenage girl who worked as a maid in Thurmond’s parents’ home when Thurmond was 22. She announced she was Thurmond’s daughter in 2003 after his death at age 100 that year, and the late senator’s family confirmed her claim.
Washington-Williams was a teacher in Los Angeles for three decades and was the mother of four. She moved to South Carolina about five years ago to be closer to a daughter who lived there, Wheaton said.
Her 2006 memoir, “Dear Senator,” detailed her decades-long relationship with her father, the letters they wrote each other and the kindness he showed her personally, which she struggled to reconcile with his opposition to civil rights and his defense of racial segregation.
“She was very low-key and never wanted to rock the boat, I think that’s why she kept her secret until he died,” said William Stadiem, who co-wrote “Dear Senator.”
Stadiem said Thurmond had great affection for Washington-Williams’ mother, Carrie Butler.
“The fact he stayed close to Essie for all those years, it would be so easy for him to say ‘get out of my life, you don’t exist,’ and he didn’t do that,” Stadiem said. “I think she reminded him of her mother.”
Washington-Williams as a young child went to live with her mother’s sister and her husband in Pennsylvania, and it was from him that she took the surname Washington. She adopted the name Williams from her marriage to attorney Julius Williams.
Thurmond began his career as a Democrat but switched to the Republican Party in 1964. In his lifetime, Thurmond said he was not racist but opposed what he saw as excessive federal intervention.
He staged the longest filibuster in U.S. history when he spoke for more than 24 hours against a 1957 civil rights bill that sought to fight the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South by giving new powers to federal prosecutors.
In 2004 a statue of Thurmond outside the South Carolina State House was altered to engrave the name Essie Mae with those of his other four children on the foundation stone.
Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Xavier Briand