Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Monday, December 22, 2003
 
A Long Post on Strom Thurmond's Daughter

The New York Times article which prompted this.
This Thurmond New York Times article by Jeffrey Gettleman, about the reactions of Strom Thurmond's legitimate family's reaction to Essie Mae Washington-Williams revealing that he was her father is interesting. All of the quotes that The Times got directly (as opposed to the attorney-crafted statement released by Strom Thurmand Jr., the Senator's oldest son and "heir") are at least border-line negative and somewhat self-centered. They're all from neices and nephews and one grand neice, reflecting on the difficulty they have dealing with this news. The kindest one is from one neice, Ellen Senter:


"Ellen Senter, a niece of Mr. Thurmond, also praised Ms. Washington-Williams' handling of her announcement after remaining silent for so long.

"Essie Mae Washington-Williams's humble spirit and kind nature has made it easier for us to bear this news," said Ms. Senter, 58, a teacher in Columbia. "But it was hard when I first heard it because it was surprising to me that my uncle had any sort of illegitimate child, black or white."
"

Another neice, Mary Freeman, admits that her cousin being black is an issue, while a nephew, James Bishop, says "I don't why this lady is doing this" and his daughter, Robyn Bishop, says, "I just hope this woman is coming out for the right reasons." The piece ends with Mary Freeman saying:

"Ms. Freeman said she was not sure if she was ready to meet Ms. Washington-Williams, who has said she wants to connect with as many members of the family as possible.

"If I do, I'm not going to go with open arms," Ms. Freeman said. "It's too much to accept right now."
"

Gettleman describes the reaction of Thurmond's son so:

"On Monday, two days after the news broke about Ms. Washington-Williams, Mr. Thurmond issued a statement for the family acknowledging her "claim to her heritage" and indicating he would like to meet her."

Gettleman immediately follows it with quotes implying that it's the only thing the man (a 31 year-old U.S. attorney) could have said, and that the lawyer-crafted statement is not as candid as the kinds of quotes Gettleman got from the other branches of the family.


---
My musings on the article.
What I find interesting about all this is that none of these relatives reflected on what it must be like to be in your seventies before you can freely state who your father is. None of them make any statement of compassion or sympathy to a woman who is the oldest child of one the last century's most towering political figures, but who lived her live without the family atmosphere--or instantaneous networking benefits--that graced them as neices and nephews. By all accounts Mr. Thurmond supported his daughter, and perhaps he pulled a few strings for her over the years. Nonetheless, she hardly had the benefits of being raised by her father, a value that his party and his people have trumpeted endlessly. Mary Freeman seems openly hostile in the article, and James Bishop and his daughter Robyn Bishop's use of the adjective "this" is symptomatic of their chilly tone. Where is the famous Southern graciousness now?

I am hoping that Gettleman's spin on Strom Thurmond Jr.'s spin is overly cynical, and that despite the fact that the heir to the Thurmond mantle is a lawyer who used another lawyer to release his statement, he might still be sincere. On one hand, this whole matter is somewhat trivial; the Senator is finally dead, and this is simply one of many cases of illegitimacy and racial double standards. On the other hand it has some disproportionate symbolic significance, the reason, I think, it was fronted on the The Old Gray Lady. In a January, 2001 NYT article about his then unannounced but still impending appointment as U.S. Attorney, David Firestone wrote of Strom Thurmond Jr.: "Friends described him as a moderate conservative who enjoyed prosecution more than private practice and was undefeated in the five or six felony trials he prosecuted." An editorial from the same time was headlined "Thurmonds Forever."

Barring the hand of bizarre fate, it seems inevitable that Thurmond Jr. will have a long and influential political career. He has a task before him now: through his actions and future policies, he must prove that families, opinions, and cultures do in fact change and evolve over time and over generations. If his actions show that his "white" Southern family is truly able to embrace the black blood which has watered the success of their family tree for centuries, and which is inextricably mixed with their own, he will be an accomplished man. The embrace has to be egalitarian and uncondescending. If instead he provides yet another example of a stagnant family culture, he will help extend the shadows of racism far into the new century.

---
Some other links on the topic.

I first read about Essie Mae Washington-Williams in a Slate article by Diane McWhorter, and found this New York Times article through Slate's Today's Papers feature on Saturday. A Slate Frayster posted an interesting reminscence on interracial dating. My own Fray post overlaps with this one, but not completely. It's also pretty long.


The deepest--and interestingly, apparently frankest--coverage I've found so far comes from South Carolina's paper, The State:

"Thurmond's Past Invites New Scrutiny"

"Critics of Thurmond's Daughter Change Tune"

"Dad walked the walk"--a retrospective on his childhood by Thurmond Jr., written for the Senator's 100th birthday. A quote:
"He taught me, as a boy, how to ride a bike, and I'll never forget that day now more than 25 years ago that he did away with the training wheels, gave me a big push, and sent me pedaling unsteadily through our neighborhood, running behind me, cheering, his arms raised over his head.

This rite of passage has been repeated between many a father and his children, and it did not matter that mine just happened to be a United States senator; he was always just Dad to us
." --Probably more notable at the time written because it is describing a 70-something year-old man, it is also notable as an example of what Essie Mae Washington-Williams did not get as a child.

This International-Herald Tribune article discusses this as an example of the usual dismissiveness faced by black oral history, as well as the intricacies of the one drop rule. I got it from Gavin's Blog.

And I've got to wonder why Boondocks hasn't said a word. . .

Update:
I fixed a few more typos and set the quotes in italics to make them more clear.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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