Jennifer Danny | Essie May and the Search for a Better Path

SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
SCV Voices: Guest Commentary

I have written about Essie Mae Washington-Williams before. She was the daughter of James Strom Thurmond, who passed away in 2003. 

Later that year Essie came forward and confirmed the truth — after decades of suspicion — that she was in fact the daughter of the longest-serving senator in U.S. history. 

Why did this make front-page news? Because her mother was a young woman of color who worked in the Thurmond home and Strom was a young, wealthy white male who impregnated her. 

And so you ask again, why was this important? Because Strom’s early political years were built on a segregationist platform. 

A man of privilege bedding the family maid, and then nine months later a baby is born. OK, so it’s not cloaked in mystery, it’s pretty textbook. What I found fascinating was the irony of this man running on the segregationist party ticket in 1948 and yet he had a daughter who was of mixed race. 

Essie Mae’s mother was very poor, so relatives in Pennsylvania had actually raised her. 

In fact, she didn’t meet her father until she was 16 and she’s quoted as being quite surprised to see that he was white. 

After the initial meeting of father and daughter, they continued with secret visits at the governor’s mansion, and clandestine financial support. Essie attended college and became a teacher. 

For many years she kept the secret of who her father really was. 

I imagine she tucked the truth away on some page of a diary where a young woman’s thoughts and dreams are protected. 

Ah, but not like today’s world where every single private thought is shared via the internet or tweeted about or posted for all to read, with nary a care who it might affect or who it might hurt. Have we lost the art of etiquette 101, “If you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say it?” 

Strom Thurmond had based his presidential campaign largely on an explicit states’ rights platform that challenged the civil rights movement. 

But what I didn’t know is that Strom Thurmond’s views changed over the years. He, if you don’t mind the metaphor, stepped off his “platform,” softening up a bit on some of his earlier issues regarding civil rights. 

Essie Mae was instrumental in helping him to “view it through another lens.” 

Perhaps his heart knew better? 

Essie Mae earned her master’s degree and worked in the field of education. She married and went on to raise four children and kept the secret from them, too. She states her reasons were not to cause harm to Strom’s political career and family. 

For years people were told that her family and Thurmond’s were friends. She went along with that story, and only came forward to tell her story after Strom had died. 

I wonder how many of us would be able to do that? The internet and its constant bantering of me, me, me, me…. as if one is getting their voice ready to sing in an opera. The collective finger-pointing narrative gains a voice, creating the snowball effect of miscues and misinformation, often times doing more harm than good. 

Essie Mae was a woman of strength and character, who found a way to rise above the “badge” of her beginnings. She chose her path. And though she passed away in 2013, she became the person she was destined to become. 

It’s a beautiful story when one can make the decision in their life to not be defined by the past. It is an attainable goal, that each and every one of us can achieve. We are meant to have our star shine bright. 

I mentioned that I thought perhaps Essie was instrumental in helping Strom “step off his platform” and see things differently. The word “step” can be quite meaningful, and I would like to think that in this case the “stumbling blocks” actually became the “stepping stones” toward a better path.

Jennifer Danny is a Santa Clarita resident.

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