Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Multi-Racial Read #16: Dear Senator Part VII

In 1953 Essie Mae Washington-Williams moved to California to start a new life with her husband and son.  She flew home regularly to receive cash gifts from her father that were delivered by a relative; she also kept close tabs on her father's political activity.

In 1956 nineteen southern senators declared war on the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and called for a return of "separate but equal" status quo, stating that "the states had the right, by any lawful means, to resist integration ordered by the federal government. My father, in touting his manifesto, once again put his racist foot in his states'-rights mouth, calling the white people of the South 'the greatest minority in this nation'....Oh daddy! I despaired." [p. 170]

In early 1960 Thurmond's young wife died of a brain tumor. Soon afterwards Essie Mae cut a speech out of the paper (to prevent her husband from reading it) in which Thurmond said:

"Just as there are in this country two main and quite distinct cultures, a northern culture and a southern culture, so there are in this country two different species of genus segregation... Segregation in the South is open, honest, and aboveboard. Northern segregation is founded on hypocrisy and deceit." (p.176)

Essie Mae commented, "...My father shared [John C.] Calhoun's paternalism; he never saw it as racism, even though the rest of the country did....He called southern segregation 'human,' which was one of the worst uses of that adjective I ever heard." (p.176)

After her husband died suddenly, Essie Mae moved into View Park, an area that "was about as good as a neighborhood could get for African-Americans at the time."  They had a few Asian, Mexican and white neighbors, although it was less integrated as she had seen when they had first moved to Los Angeles. (p.186)

Although her neighborhood was not as racially mixed as she preferred, in Los Angeles she experienced racial acceptance and equality. Over the following years she completed college, registered to vote, joined the NAACP, and became a guidance counselor. She taught English as a second language to students from all over Central and South America as well as Asia. "I was very flattered that so many of my students would want to come up to me after class and ask more questions." [p.187]

As I mentioned previously, I read Dear Senator on a recent trip west. One of the highlights of this trip was worshipping in a multi-cultural church in a suburb just north of Los Angeles. The congregation was a generous mix of Hispanics, Asians, and whites, as you may be able to detect in these pictures from the All Saints  Reformed Presbyterian Facebook page.

Afterwards I thought of Essie Mae and her experiences living and working among people of many ethnic backgrounds. She had come a long way from the Deep South and being a young woman who had to sit in the back of the bus and had to keep her parentage secret. In visiting Los Angeles, I understood how she found a home and acceptance in a culture full of racial diversity. 

But no one--not even her children--knew who her father was. In my last installment in this series, I'll share some of what led up to that revelation. 

If you are interested, here are the previous blogs in this series:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Multi-Racial Read #15: Dear Senator Part VI

In this sixth part of this series of excerpts from Essie Mae Washington Williams' autobiography, Dear Senator: A Memoir of the Daughter of Strom Thurmond, I bring you some of her segregated world. 

During their first meeting after the birth of Essie Mae's son she recollected,

"...he kept it cool and formal. The most he would do was urge me to go back to school. 'You need that education, Essie Mae, as much as your husband needs his." But that was as close as he would get, like a guidance counselor or the teacher that he was. As much as I wanted to 'belong' to him, I never felt like a daughter, only an accident....Something, some strong feeling, was definitely there. That was what was drawing him to me, and me to him. But that feeling was all bottled up. We both felt it, from opposite sides of an invisible wall. It was segregated love." [p.155]

She and her husband, Julius, lived in Savannah where he tried to start a law practice. She observed, 

"Sometimes the utter complacency of black Savannah would provoke me into action. I was usually very self-effacing. First, I was a woman, who wanted to be a lady, and ladies weren't loud, pushy, or that hated word used by whites, 'uppity.' Second, I was black, or at least assigned to that category, so I felt second class and hence not entitled to speak my piece. Third, I was illegitimate and harbored a shame over my birth that stifled me, despite the fact I knew it wasn't my fault. Finally, I had a big secret to keep, and as the illegitimate daughter of a famous white supremacist, I was under a lifetime gag order." [p.160]

Nevertheless, one day when she was pregnant and coming home from work, she sat in the empty "whites only" section of the city bus. Attempts by the bus driver to make her move were unsuccessful and was pleased with her little victory. 

By 1953, it was obvious that Julius' law practice wasn't prospering. When his sister wrote and told them glowing reports of California, the family decided to move west. After receiving a farewell gift of money from her father she wrote,

"All the money in the world couldn't have bought Julius and our two sons decent accommodations on our trip across the country. We drove across the green and lush Deep South and then Texas, which for all its barren plains, was just like the Deep South as far as blacks were concerned. There were motels all along the highways, but blacks were barred form most of them, nor could we use rest rooms at many of the gas stations, for fear of being victimized by Klan types. There was an informal 'network' of black travelers who had told Julius what rest stops and service areas were 'safe' for us, which often meant a nail-biting long ride in which we often came close to running out of gas before we arrived at a safe harbor.

"...In big cities like New Orleans and Dallas there were 'colored only' motor courts where we could catch up on sleep and bathing, but it was more the Mary and Joseph experience of no room at the inn until we reached New Mexico. There were very few blacks there, and people seemed happy to receive us, to take our money. There were lots of Mexicans, and maybe they thought Julius was one of them. It was smooth sailing all the way across the endless southwestern desert to Los Angeles. The whole trip lasted about a week, but the trials and tribulations of being black voyagers in a white world made it seem like a month." [p. 163-4]

If you remember, I began this series saying that I read Dear Senator on a recent trip to California. Although apparently Essie Mae's family didn't have problems getting services as they crossed the desert, I couldn't help thinking about them when we drove through barren, southwestern Arizona. Vistas like this were common with water available every few miles for over-heated radiators.  

I was fortunate. I had air-conditioning, a water bottle, and a cell phone. Luxuries not known to the Williams family.

For previous posts in this series please see:
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

Next up, we'll hear more of Essie Mae's political observations.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Multi-Racial Read #14: Dear Senator Part V

This is the fifth in a series of excerpts from Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond.  

Strom Thurmond secretly visited his daughter throughout her college years. Soon after Thurmond lost his bid for the presidency in 1948 and Essie Mae's mother died, Essie Mae confronted him on some of his pervasive beliefs about blacks. Her boldness was fueled by anger over the miserable conditions of her mother's death. Perhaps she was also tired of the cloak of secrecy which permeated their visits. 

"I want black people to have jobs."

"So do I, Essie Mae. That's why I love this school [South Carolina State University], which gets Negroes qualified. I'm working on a lot of educational reforms... But it takes time."

"The backs of the buses, the railway coaches, the colored balconies at the movie shows... It's not fair."

"It's the South, Essie Mae," the governor spoke with finality. "It's the culture here. It's the custom. It's the way we live." I could tell the "we" didn't include me. "You don't go to England and tell them to get rid of the queen and the royalty. That's not fair, either, but it's the custom. They got rid of the royalty in Russia, and what do you have? Communism! A police state. It's no different from Hitler."

And neither are you, I wanted to say. What I did say was, "Hitler said the Jews were inferior. You said the Negroes (I often used his terms) are inferior."

"That is completely untrue, Essie Mae. A terrible falsehood! Where did I say that?

"Not inferior. Different! Different! Imagine! To compare me to Hitler. Not that I haven't heard it in that campaign. I heard everything. But to hear it from you. Essie Mae... You can't change the South."

"You don't want to, sir."

"Oh yes I do. I'm changing it right now, by having you here, getting a fine education to get you a fine career. There's nothing in this country you won't be able to do, Essie Mae. Nothing at all. Nothing your husband won't be able to do."

"We can't get served at the counter at Woolworth's."

"Why would you want to? The food's no good. I bet these restaurants right here are much better. They serve good fresh food. I know they do. You can't get a vegetable at Woolworth's. I've never seen spinach, green beans at the five and dime. What do you want, a hot dog that will kill you?"

"I guess I want the choice." (p. 146-7)

At the end of that visit Thurmond reached out to hug his daughter, but she didn't recieve it.  But when she was counting the money he gave her after he left she concluded,

"For all his bluster, for all his racist campaign posturing, I somehow couldn't dislike him the way I wanted to...Even though on the surface he had it all, high office, a perfect wife, health and wealth and power, I--and only I--new how deeply conflicted he had to be. I knew he loved my mother. I believed he loved me, after his fashion. It was an unspeakable love, forbidden by the 'culture and custom' of the South, as he called it. The money was speaking it for him. It wasn't hush money; it wasn't a bribe. It was the governor's own outpouring of love and shame and frustration. He had no other way to demonstrate his affection." (p. 149)

Next week I'll share more of Essie Mae's observations about segregation. 

For previous posts in this series:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Multi-Racial Read #13: Dear Senator- Part IV

When Strom Thurmond assumed the gubernatorial office in January 1947, Essie Mae was one of a select group of students from South Carolina State University who attended. As she looked at the family who surround him she thought,

I wanted to be up there on the podium with them. This was my family, but I didn't know them and they didn't know me. In time, in time, I prayed to myself. If my father could change this state, with its Confederate flags flying and its Confederate soldiers standing vigil atop their obelisks, I had reason to hope he could change his own house. I flattered myself by thinking that my own existence might have something to do with his progressive stance. (p. 120)

[Note: At that time Thurmond was more sympathetic to blacks. But he changed his position in later years.]

Her father visited her at college, although the meetings were always secretive. 

His favorite question, which he asked whenever he saw me, was "How does it feel to be the daughter of the governor?" My answer was always the same: "It doesn't bother me at all." I was trying to joke with him, but he took it with a stone face. To him, I suppose our deep secret wasn't a joking matter. Still, this was the first time he himself had verbally acknowledged that I was his child. He used the D-word,  which he had not done in our previous meetings. (p. 123-4)

Hardly a year later and shortly after Thurmond's marriage to a pretty aide who was less than half his age, the Governor returned to his family-ingrained prejudices against the black race. In response to President Truman's address to Congress on civil rights, Thurmond vowed that South Carolina was "ready to fight back," denounced Truman's civil rights measures as "anti-American," and  defended segregation laws as "essential to the racial protection and purity of the white and Negro races alike." (p.133-4)

Essie Mae felt as if, " mother and I, and the blacks of South Carolina, had been stabbed in the back.  That summer, she had "too much rage to seek company for my misery. I wanted to forget."

So, she got married to a man who had been pursuing her for years, Julius Williams. Not wanting to hurt him in anyway and concerned over how he would react to her white parentage, she kept her father's identity a secret.

"I kept my history, and my anger, to myself." (p. 135)
Next week I'll share a conversation when she finally expresses some of that anger. 

For previous posts in this series:

Part I
Part II
Part III

Monday, June 3, 2013

And the Winner is...

Congratulations to Gail Hurlburt, who persevered and WON an autographed copy of Chris Woodworth's book, Ivy in the Shadows.
For those of you who didn't win, don't despair! Next May I will give away my last copy of this book as a part of the Friendship issue of Talking Story. If you don't receive this bi-monthly newsletter which Joyce Hostetter and I publish, sign up today!

Gail, please send me your mailing address and I'll put the book in the mail to you shortly. Thanks to all for entering!


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