Freed from the Past

updated 01/12/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

After decades of keeping silent, after so many years of rumors and denials, Essie Mae Washington-Williams still cannot be heard. This time, though, it's because she speaks in the barest of whispers. Telling the world about the secret she harbored for most of her life has given her laryngitis. "I didn't think the reaction would be anything like this," she says from her ranch-style home in Los Angeles. "It really surprised me that people were that interested."

On Dec. 17, Washington-Williams, 78, shook the halls of history by admitting at a press conference that she's the illegitimate daughter of Strom Thurmond, the dynastic South Carolina senator and onetime segregationist who died last June at 100. Over the years, even as Thurmond railed passionately against accepting African-Americans into white society during the civil rights era, rumors that he had a biracial daughter swirled in his home state. But Washington-Williams—born in 1925 after Thurmond, then 22, had an affair with a 16-year-old African-American maid employed by his family—never gave credence to the gossip. "I didn't want to acknowledge it because it was embarrassing to me," says Washington-Williams, a retired teacher who often met with Thurmond and received financial assistance from him but was never introduced to his wife or children. "It wasn't a normal family situation. Saying anything would not have helped me and it would not have helped him."

It was only after Thurmond's death, and at the urging of Wanda Terry, 49, one of her four children, that Washington-Williams finally set the record straight. "She came into my room early one morning and said, 'You've been asking me to do this.... I think I'm ready now,' " says Terry, an Internet entrepreneur and divorced mother of two. "She never wanted to discuss it with us. So she was lifting a huge, huge burden."

Her story reflects the dirty secret of segregation—the exploitation of black women by white men. And yet, despite all the buzz about her existence, the announcement took many in Thurmond's family by surprise. "They pretty much knew nothing about this," says Bettis Rainsford, 52, a former Thurmond intern and longtime confidant. "Certainly, [his wife] Nancy didn't, and Julie [one of his four children] didn't." Thurmond's eldest son, J. Strom Jr., 31, issued a statement accepting Washington-Williams's claim, while one of her cousins on Thurmond's side invited her to a Christmas family reunion last week (she couldn't attend). Still, finding her place in Thurmond's extended and prominent network of relatives—as is her wish—will likely take some time. "She's never been part of any of our gatherings; it's like she never even existed," says Thurmond's niece Mary Freeman, 64. "She seems to want acceptance, but I don't know what the outcome will be."

At times, her life unfolded like a southern Gothic opera. Six months after her birth, Washington-Williams was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania. Her mother, Carrie Butler, was too poor to raise her and didn't see her again until Essie Mae was 13. Three years later Butler introduced her to Thurmond, then an attorney, after a funeral in South Carolina. "I knew I had a father somewhere, but I had never heard anybody talk about him," she recalls. "I was surprised [to see he was white]." Thurmond's reaction to meeting her? "He said, 'You're a very lovely young lady.' He said he was so glad to see me."

Thurmond would soon begin his rise to political power. Elected governor of South Carolina in 1946 and to the U.S. Senate in 1954, he made his name as a staunch segregationist known for fiery speeches. "All the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes," he declared at a 1948 anti-civil rights rally. But throughout his time as governor and record 48 years in the senate, he met regularly, if secretly, with Washington-Williams. Their relationship, she says, was a warm one. "He would talk about his family but not politics," she says. "One time, I asked him, 'Why do you say all those things [about segregation]?' He said, 'That's just the way things have been.' " Thurmond paid her tuition at South Carolina State College, where she studied business and met her husband, Julius Williams. (He died of heart disease in 1964.) He also often sent her money, though she declines to say how much she received.

So far, Washington-Williams is gratified by the public reaction to her story—and the Thurmond family's tentative embrace. Still, she has one further goal: She'd like to see her name carved alongside those of Thurmond's other children on the statue of him that graces the south side of the state capitol building in Columbia, S.C. Recently, just above the reference to his four children on the statue's granite pedestal, someone printed the word "five" in black felt marker. A hammer and chisel, she hopes, will make the change permanent. "The people of this country needed to know the truth—this is part of history," she says. "I was hesitant at first, but now I feel okay. It's all out there now."

Alex Tresniowski. Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles and Siobhan Morrissey in South Carolina

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