In the previous posts in this series, I shared excerpts from Dear Senator: A Memoir of the Daughter of Strom Thurmond that covered Essie Mae's early years. This post includes some of her struggles with her racial identity.
During her nursing training at Harlem Hospital Essie Mae attended Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.'s church, the Abyssinian Baptist Church. She admired the fact that he was "so light skinned that it was always said he could have 'passed for white.' Perhaps the most inspiring thing about him what that he didn't want to. (p. 85) She reflected,
A lot of girls, the light-skinned ones, frequently talked about passing, marrying into the white world, preferably the rich white world, and living on East Street- Park Avenue, not Lenox. Here I was, born into the rich, white world, the plantation world, and yet where was I? It could have been easy to be resentful, because I was "it" or at least half of "it," yet it was doing me no good aside from two envelopes of money. I was grateful to have a church to turn to, to count my blessings and pray for more, and to watch this great "white" preacher embrace his blackness. If he could be happy with it, so could anyone else. (p. 85)
Essie Mae decided nursing wasn't for her and discussed her options when Strom visited after the war was over. She was pleased when he suggested she attend the "state" college back home in South Carolina until she realized that he meant the "Negro college."
He didn't have the heart to say the word. In face, he had never spoken the word in my presence He couldn't bring himself to do it, but there it was. My father saw me as a Negro. I may have been half black and half white, but the rule in the courts was a drop of blood made you black. I don't know what else I was expecting. I had lived my whole life as a Negro, but to hear it from my white father, and a judge at that, made it a brutal ruling, and one with no appeal. I could either go to a "Yankee" college or a "Negro" college, but I couldn't go to a "Southern" college, because that meant a white college, and despite my white father, I couldn't be white. p.97"
Next week I'll share Essie Mae's thoughts on her father as South Carolina's 103rd governor and its effect on her. Here are links to the previous posts:
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