In the late 60's Thurmond surprised Essie Mae by calling to say he was coming to Los Angeles and wanted to see her children. She was thrilled, but first had to break the news that their white grandfather- the staunch Republican "King of the South"--wanted to meet them.
Her children were understandably shocked and couldn't believe he once loved her mother. But as surprised as they were, they agreed to attend the church were he was speaking. Essie Mae recollected, "It wasn't some emotional family reunion. There were too many people around for that, and besides, he preferred things this way, just as if he were out on the stump, charming for votes...He introduced us to his local handlers as 'some dear old family friends.''' [p.197] Eventually, her children accepted him and were recipients of his generosity.
As Senator Thurmond aged he became more generous to Essie Mae and helped many blacks get into political office, including one of her old boyfriends, Matthew Perry. When Essie Mae completed her MA degree he presented her with a string of genuine pearls and a diamond-encrusted pearl pendant. But despite his pride and affection, a public acknowledgment of their relationship was not forthcoming.
In reflection about him Essie Mae wrote:
"He was his father's son, following every rule to the letter, by the book. The one time in his life that he broke the rules was with my mother, his one and only walk on the wild side. I was Exhibit A, proof that Strom Thurmond had soul. But by the same token of his eternal caution and propriety, I was proof he dare not present. That's why, at the end of his life, he never stepped forward to celebrate our relationship. He must have been thinking of his legacy, his posterity. The southern gentleman in him that prevented him from forsaking me also prevented him from embracing me--and all the glory that embrace might have brought him. He would always be a conservative, in war and in love." [p.204]
After his death at 100, Essie Mae's children urged her to make her secret public and to confront the fact that she had been left out his will. Essie Mae hesitated, her loyalty to him and desire not to become a public figure were very strong. Finally in 2003, her daughter contacted a lawyer, Frank Wheaton, who was willing to take on the case.
"Leaving me out of his will, just like leaving me out of his life, had been a massive injustice, Frank asserted....It took me a week to decide, but I didn't want to end my life carrying this secret to my grave. I wasn't a black Joan of Arc as Frank was trying to inspire me to be, but maybe I could help someone by telling my tale. 'The truth shall set you free,' and I wanted to die a free person." [p.215]
Rather than the closure she had expected, after a well-attended press conference in the state capitol of Columbia, S.C. Essie Mae felt as if this was the grand opening of the rest of her life. She appeared on television, developed friendships with Thurmond relatives, obtained an honorary doctorate from South Carolina State, spoke frequently at public events, and strove to become a member of the NSDAR (National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution) and the UDC (United Daughters of the Confederacy).
Defending these decisions she concluded her book by writing:
"I am every bit as white as I am black, and it is my full intention to drink the nectar of both goblets. History is complex, and mine is as complex as it gets. That's why I want to join these organizations, to explore and to to comprehend all the fascinating complexities, tragic as well as joyous of my life, and of my country. In my past lives, as defined by my genealogy, I was a slave and I was a master; I was black and I was white; I was a Roosevelt progressive and I was a Dixiecrat; I was for Kennedy and I was for Nixon; I was the glorious president of of the South and I was a lowly maid in Edgefield. Above all, I transcended all these internal contradictions to become a real person, my own person, a simple person who loves America as the wonderful place that has allowed me to discover, and to be, exactly who I am." [p.223]
I was left with a sense of loss, but her rich memoir is a legacy to myself and future generations. We all can be reminded of the power of family relationships that cross boundaries; love and loyalty; and the "truth that can set us free." (John 8:32)
Here is a video of Essie Mae taken at the Strom Thurmond institute in Clemson, SC:
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