Essie Mae Washington-Williams Tribute

In 2004 and again in 2005, Essie Mae Washington-Williams sat down with us and shared the story of her secret parentage and details from her memoir, Dear Senator.

Looking for closure, Essie Mae Washington-Williams created a bit of controversy when she broke a lifetime of silence and claimed her heritage as the daughter of former U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond. A retired Los Angeles schoolteacher, she visited Thurmond's office over the years and received financial support from him, but refused to reveal their relationship until after his death. She penned her autobiography, Dear Senator, which was released in 2005 and nominated for a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Washington-Williams recently passed away of natural causes.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: During this tenth anniversary season here on PBS we’ve been looking back at some of our memorable conversations over the past decade. Tonight we wanted to share something with you from our very first week on the air.

It was January 2004, and a company called Facebook didn’t even exist yet. Facebook was actually founded one week after our premiere here on PBS.

But during our first week we were paid a visit by an unlikely public figure that year – Essie Mae Washington-Williams. For years, she harbored the secret that she was the daughter of former South Carolina senator and infamous segregationist Strom Thurmond.

Following his death in 2003, Essie Mae Washington-Williams decided to tell the world her story, including a conversation with me in January of 2004.

[Begin video clip of previously recorded interview]

Tavis: Ms. Williams, it’s nice to meet you. Thanks for coming on to talk to me.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams: Well, thank you.

Tavis: This press conference that I mentioned just a few weeks ago now was a remarkable event. You’ve had a few days to put some distance between that moment and now when you came out to the world with this secret you’ve been harboring for all these years. How are you feeling a few weeks after the world now knows your story, all your business?

Williams: (Laughter) Well, I feel just fine. In fact, I feel somewhat relieved to get this out of my system, right.

Tavis: When you say you “feel relieved to get it out of your system,” tell me why you say that.

Williams: Well, because it was something I never talked about, even though people had tried to get me to talk about it, but I did not want to talk about it. I felt after talking with my children that perhaps I should get this out, because it is a part of history, and so we made the arrangements to do that.

Tavis: There are a lot of folk in the country now, Black folk, white folk, brown folk – I suspect all kinds of Americans – who wonder why it is that you have been so deferential to this man who, as I mentioned a moment ago, many recall having risen to prominence as a staunch segregationist.

I’m sure you’re a wonderful person and I’m delighted to meet you, but there are a lot of folk who are wondering why is she being so nice to this guy who was such a staunch segregationist? Why so deferential to Strom Thurmond?

Williams: When I first met him, which was back in 1941, I was about 16 years old. My mother had introduced us. From the time he met me he’d been a wonderful person to me. He’d done many things. I had an uncle and aunt who raised me, and as far as I was concerned, they were my parents. But to know that this was actually my father was even a lot more meaningful.

Tavis: There are so many parts of this story that I found absolutely amazing, and not the least of which is that you discovered at 16 that you were, in fact, half-white. What kind of revelation must that have been at 16 to discover this alarming part of your history that you were totally unaware of?

Williams: Well, I never thought I was half-white or whatever. Color wasn’t anything I thought about, although I knew I was the fairest one in my family, because they were all a darker complexion, including my mother.

When I met him, of course, I was surprised, because she had not ever said anything about his color. It was a surprise, but I was very happy to meet him, and his color really didn’t matter to me.

Tavis: Tell me about your life. I’ve been fascinated not just about the part of your story that has to do with Strom Thurmond. That’s fascinating for me. But you’ve lived a rich and a full life, starting with teaching for 30-plus years.

Williams: Yes. When I graduated from high school I lived in New York for about a year, and I decided that I wanted to go away to college. I had decided on a special college at that time, and I was in touch with my father, frequently in touch with him, and he recommended the school down there in South Carolina, which had a very good reputation.

I applied and I went down there that August of 1946 and started at the college, and I met lots of people that were very fine people, and I was very happy to be there. Even though I had lived in the South, I had left there at six months of age. But upon returning, it was a wonderful experience.

Tavis: I was going to ask you, you’ve already answered it, but let me probe a little further, how involved Senator Thurmond was in your life. I hear you suggest now that he was involved in helping you make a decision about where to go to college.

As daughters want to reach out to their fathers, once you’d made the contact with him at 16 and knew who he was, did you feel free whenever you wanted to reach out to him, to talk to him, to ask him advice, to ask his counsel on things?

Williams: Oh, yes. That was one of the things he did. He gave me lots of guidance, and whenever I felt I wanted to be in touch with him, I would call him. Or if he wasn’t available at that time, he would always call me back. So we were in touch.

Tavis: How widespread, from your vantage point, how widespread was this story for you? Before you came public with it, there were people you said earlier who had tried to get you to come out and talk about this. How widespread was this story? How many people knew about this, do you think, before you actually came out to the world?

Williams: Well, I’m not sure how many. I do know that when the rumor started when I was on the campus it was all around the, all the students talked about it. But they never approached me and asked me anything about it. However, I had a roommate who knew what was going on, and she would tell me many of the things being said.

Of course I’d just laugh and I didn’t want to discuss it, and I never talked about the situation to other people.

Tavis: I want to honor my agreement with your attorney, who’s sitting off-camera here, so I know he’s going to throw something at me if I ask you something (laughter) that I promised I wouldn’t cover with you, out of respect for you and this book that I know that you’re going to be working on here in a little bit.

So I don’t want to ask you about Mr. Thurmond’s politics, but I do want to ask you a question about how you, in your own sprit and in your own person, were able to juxtapose this guy being a loving, if you will, and accessible father to you when you reached out to him, once the contact was made, with his politics.

Did it ever bother you or concern you that a guy who you had established a relationship with, who, for all intents and purposes, was cool with you, but was pushing an agenda that was antithetical to the best interests of African American people?

Williams: Well, I was a student in college and I was not into politics. However, when I heard some of the remarks that were made, in talking with him I did ask him about making the statements and about his stand on racism and so forth.

He explained to me that that’s the way things were in the South, and he didn’t seem to want to expound on that too much, so I didn’t question him too much further.

But we did talk about that, and I thought maybe there was something he could do more positive.

Tavis: And did you express that to him?

Williams: And he did, but it came much later.

Tavis: It did in fact come much later, but it did – I guess better late than never, as they say.

Williams: Yeah, starting in the ’70s, see, and we’re talking about back in the ’40s.

Tavis: So it took you 40 years to get him to come around to the right side, but you kept working on him.

Williams: Yeah, oh, yes. He knew how I felt, mm-hmm.

Tavis: Right. Let me ask you what you think this revelation does for his legacy? It’s one thing for people to talk to you, and again, I’m glad you’re on here, to tell your side of the story, but now that this man is dead and gone, what do you think this does to his legacy, as it were?

Williams: Well, in just talking with people since this has happened, people sort of look at him in a different light and not as harsh about the way they feel about him, because they found out that he had done so many wonderful things that many of them didn’t even know about.

They knew about the segregation, the racism, and so forth. When they found out he’d done so many things for Black people as far as setting up the first trade school in South Carolina and in Washington when he was a senator he had the first Black administrative aides. None of the other senators had that.

He assisted many African American students during the time even when I was – there were many people. He was a very good man.

Tavis: I can see on the one hand how one who found herself in your situation could have been embittered and could have held a grudge their entire life, but as I mentioned earlier, you went on, have gone on, I should say, to live a very productive life, including being very much involved in your church.

Tell me about the role that your faith has played in your life all these many years, keeping this secret.

Williams: Well, I had no reason to, I never even thought about wanting to reveal anything, although I had been questioned by magazines and some of the newspaper people to give them a story, they had heard the story and wanted to know about the relationship.

I said he’s a friend of the family, which he was. All those years he was a friend of the family.

Tavis: That’s all you ever said.

Williams: Yes.

Tavis: Your standard line was, “He’s a friend of the family.”

Williams: Yes.

Tavis: Okay.

Williams: Of course they couldn’t take it any further, because I didn’t admit it at that time. I didn’t admit it at all. Now as far as my church is concerned, I belong to the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship, and I’ve belonged there ever since I’ve been in Los Angeles, 40 years.

I had always been very active in my church. I had worked with the Sunday school, I had worked with the public relations board, and eventually I became the moderator. The moderator is an assistant to the pastor. At that time, the pastor was Reverend Madison Shockley, and we worked very closely together.

There were a few problems in the church, but they were eventually resolved. Later, I was honored by the church, back about 1997, I believe it was.

Tavis: If there is a lesson here for America out of your story, what do you think that lesson is, right quick?

Williams: Well, in thinking about that, I feel that my having come forth to reveal my story should be a lesson for all Americans in having Americans, Black, white, and all others, live together in unity. I think that that’s one of the big problems that we’ve had in this country, would be race problems, more so than anywhere else, and we need to close that gap.

Tavis: I’m glad you came on and talked to me.

[End video clip of previously recorded interview]

Tavis: Essie Mae Washington-Williams passed away last week at the age of 87. That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from Los Angeles, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

 

January 28, 2005

Tavis: I am pleased to welcome Essie Mae Washington-Williams back to this program. The daughter of the late Senator Strom Thurmond has just released a long-awaited account of her life called ‘Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond.’ Ms. Washington-Williams, it’s nice to have you back on the program.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams: Well, thank you.

Tavis: I guess it was about a year ago, about this same time. Our show started–this is our second season, so we started a year ago last January, almost to the day you were here, when this story first broke. So now you’re back, so it’s nice to see you.

Washington-Williams: Well, I’m glad to be back.

Tavis: You got a busy year since you made this announcement over a year ago. So what’s it been like for the last year?

Washington-Williams: Well, it’s been quite a bit of work. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling also.

Tavis: Uh-huh. You have met–since you made the announcement, you have been added to the Thurmond Memorial. So you’ve been accepted–is it fair to say accepted, embraced by the family?

Washington-Williams: Yes, I have.

Tavis: You’ve met some of your–it sounds weird to say–brothers and sisters?

Washington-Williams: Yes, I met the 2 brothers. However I have not met the younger sister yet. She lives in Washington, D.C. The others are in South Carolina. I met the 2 brothers and their mother.

Tavis: Yeah. So–so what was that–that–that–pardon the phrase–family reunion like?

Washington-Williams: Oh, it was wonderful. Where we were staying, he sent for us to come to his home, and what a beautiful dinner. And we were there, I guess, about 3 hours or more. And it was all about the family. The talk was centered around everyone.

Tavis: What has–I’m trying to find the right way to phrase this–what has most surprised you or been most interesting to you, your most fascinating discovery over this last year once you’ve–once you went public about this?

Washington-Williams: Well, it’s been very interesting to meet the family. I’ve found that Nancy, my father’s second wife, is just a wonderful person. She’s been very cooperative in setting up the arrangements for the dinner. We had that at my brother’s home in Aiken, South Carolina, which is where I was born, by the way, in Aiken, South Carolina. And then her other son lives in Charleston, and she did the same thing in setting the arrangement up with him and his family.

Tavis: Speaking of arrangements being made with him, tell me about the first time you actually met Senator Thurmond and came to know him as your father.

Washington-Williams: OK, I met Senator Thurmond in 1941. It was around April, because school was in session and I had to take a week off of school to go with my relatives to South Carolina. My mother’s older sister had died, and they wanted to all go down to her funeral. And the day after the funeral, my mother had gone over to his office to locate him, and then she was able to make the arrangements. She came back to pick me up–I was about 16 years old then–and she introduced us.

Tavis: And…

Washington-Williams: And it was quite a surprise.

Tavis: That was the first time you knew he was a white man.

Washington-Williams: When I–she–with all the talk that she did about him and what a wonderful person he was, she never once mentioned that he was a Caucasian.

Tavis: Right.

Washington-Williams: So that was a surprise to me. But, uh…it didn’t really matter. I was just so happy to meet him.

Tavis: Yeah. You all had–well, I don’t want to say you had–how would you describe, over the years, your relationship with him? How would you describe your rel–I mean, you got a whole book written about it, obviously, but how would you describe the relationship you had with him?

Washington-Williams: It was a very good relationship, and I highly respected him, and he respected me, and he never once said anything about “Let’s not talk about this to other people.” It was something that I just didn’t do on my own. In fact, initially, I didn’t want other people to know about it. First of all, because at that time, he was a segregationist. Not when I initially met him, but later as he got into politics and he was running for the president. I didn’t want people to know that was my father. So I didn’t want to talk about it. And I’m sure he didn’t want me to talk about any of that. It was just something that was sort of understood.

Tavis: How did you reconcile yourself with his politics during that particular period, his segregationist period? Because as he got older, he got a little better on these issues, but during that period of his being a segregationist, how did you reconcile yourself with his politics?

Washington-Williams: Well, I had actually mentioned to him several times, uh, why was he saying the things that he was saying, uh, as far as black people were concerned, and he said, well, you know, the blacks have always been separated from the whites in the South. It’s the custom. They didn’t intermarry. They didn’t mix in any way. And, uh, I thought maybe being in his position, he may have been able to do something about that. But he said, well, that was the custom, and one person can’t change the customs of the area.

Tavis: Did you ever challenge him specifically on why it was OK for him to get with a sister, but not OK for everybody else to be–

Washington-Williams: Well, from what I can understand, it was a mutual type of relationship. He was fond of her, and, of course, she was very fond of him, always spoke very well of him. She didn’t say anything negative, and I feel that that’s because she was in love with him. That was my impression. And she never said anything about him to other people.

Tavis: You had a good relationship, to use your own words, but–

Washington-Williams: Yes, we did.

Tavis: But you had some interesting conversations with him, and there were some moments of disagreement about a variety of things. There is one particular passage in this book that got my attention. For those who have the book, uh, turn to page 181, class. If you don’t have it, when you get it, go to page 181. But there’s a passage here that I’ve highlighted. And I know you were a schoolteacher for many years here in L.A., so I’m going to ask you if you wouldn’t mind, teacher, to read to the class. Let me ask you to read this section here that I’ve highlighted if you might. There’s a fascinating story of a conversation she and the senator had at one time about her being his daughter.

Washington-Williams: “‘Do you look at me as a Negro, Senator?’ ‘I look at you with a lot of pride, Essie Mae,’ he said, always knowing how to flatter his way out of a tight corner. This time it wouldn’t work. ‘I hate to say this, sir, but do you realize how black people feel about you?’ I asked him point-blank, amazed at my own boldness. ‘I’m dedicated to the improvement of the Negro race.’ He was trying to turn this into a campaign speech. I wouldn’t let him. ‘Black people hate you, Senator. My husband hates you. I tried to pick up–speak up for you, but he hates you. Almost all black people do. They don’t see you as a…friend. They see you as the enemy–their worst enemy. Is that the way you want to be looked at?’ He sat silently again, astonished at what I was saying. He wasn’t angry. He didn’t think I was being uppity. He was just stunned. ‘More and more black people are going to be voting. They want you out of office. Do you want them to turn you out, sir? Because if you don’t, you better change your ways.’ I stood up to go. He stood up. He had the envelope waiting. At first I refused to take it. He pressed it into my hand. ‘You’ll need this in California.’ ‘No, thank you, sir.’ ‘A little spirited debate never hurt anybody, Essie Mae. I’m glad you spoke your mind. I surely speak mine.’ He flashed a smile at me, putting the envelope back into my hand. ‘Now, you go back to school like I’ve been telling you. Just do it.’ And then he hugged me and kissed me goodbye. ‘I’ll miss you,’ he said.”

Tavis: Wow! Um…I assume there was some money in the envelope.

Washington-Williams: Yes.

Tavis, laughing: A little money to pay for school. So he helped you out all those years.

Washington-Williams: 62 years.

Tavis: 62 years he helped you out. Yeah. Now, I read that–you can’t talk to your daddy like that.

Washington-Williams: But after, uh, the things he was saying and doing, um, it just moved me to that point that I had to say more than I had been saying.

Tavis: What was the most difficult part about keeping this thing–I know, to your earlier point, you didn’t want to be public about the fact he was your father during his segregationist period. Um, but Strom Thurmond is a hero in parts of this country, and certainly his home state of South Carolina, um, and as you say, you had a good relationship with him. How difficult was it to keep that relationship so quiet all these years?

Washington-Williams: Well, I didn’t find it to be a problem, because until he did make that change, uh, I didn’t want people, as I said earlier to you, to know that. I wasn’t at that point very proud of him.

Tavis: How has your family–your family–processed your coming out publicly like this, and how are they processing and dealing with the book and all of this renewed exposure on this issue?

Washington-Williams: Well, they were the ones who actually encouraged me to come forth with the book. I had started a book some time ago, and I didn’t complete it. I was busy working, and I didn’t get back to it, and I thought maybe one day I would finish–finish the book, and they encouraged me to that point, and so I said, well, perhaps this would be a good time.

Tavis: What’s the value of doing this book? When you came out a year ago and we had you on this program, I thought that was a major moment, obviously. You come back a year later with a book. For you, what’s the personal value of putting this on paper?

Washington-Williams: Well, it releases anything that I had within, and I felt it was so important that maybe I did need to share this with the American people, and I’m very glad that I did.

Tavis: You have joined or applied to join the Daughters of the Confederacy?

Washington-Williams: Yes, I have the applications for that. There’s some information I need in order to complete it. I plan to join that as well as the D.A.R.

Tavis: Daughters of the American Revolution. Why would you want to be part of those organizations?

Washington-Williams: Because I have relatives who died in the wars, and, uh, I do know that, uh, with the Daughters of the Confederacy, there were many black soldiers who were killed in the Civil War. And then in the Revolutionary War, we know how many there were killed, something like maybe 5,000 or more, and these people were never recognized, and we feel that they should be recognized.

Tavis: There’s a lot of good stuff in this book. The one story I didn’t get a chance to get to so you have to get it and read it. You have to read the story of when she introduced her kids to Senator Strom Thurmond. And all I can tell you is this–he was speaking at a church full of white people, and they were the only Negroes in the church. This was back in the seventies and they all had Afros. So you can imagine the Jackson Five sitting in the back of the church. Funny story. Lot of good stuff in this book. ‘Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond.’ Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Nice to see you.

Washington-Williams: Well, thank you very much.

Tavis: Glad to have you back on again. Next on this program, actress and singer Vanessa Williams. Stay with us.

 

Jan 9, 2004

Tavis: Last month, Essie Mae Washington-Williams divulged to the world a secret she’d been harboring her entire life. At an extraordinary press conference a few weeks ago, she revealed she was the daughter of the late Senator Strom Thurmond, a man who rose to national prominence as a staunch segregationist. She is now a retired schoolteacher living here in Los Angeles. Ms. Williams, it’s nice to meet you. Thanks for coming on to talk to me.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams: Well, thank you.

Tavis: This press conference I mentioned, uh, yester–a few weeks ago now, was a remarkable event. You got a few days to put some distance between that moment and now when you came out to the world with this secret you’ve been harboring for all these years. How are you feeling a few weeks after the world now knows your story, all your business?

Washington-Williams: Ha ha ha! Well, I feel just fine. In fact, I feel somewhat relieved, uh, to get this out of my system. Right.

Tavis: When you say you feel relieved to get it out of your system, um, tell me why you say that.

Washington-Williams: Well, because it was something I never talked about, even though people had tried to get me to talk about it, but I did not want to talk about it. And I felt after talking with my children that perhaps I should get this out, because it is a part of history. And so we made the arrangements to do that.

Tavis: There are a lot of folk in the country now–black folk, white folk, brown folk–I suspect all kinds of Americans, uh, who…wonder why it is that you have been so deferential to this man who, as I mentioned a moment ago, many recall having risen to prominence as a staunch segregationist–and I’m sure you’re a wonderful person. I’m delighted to meet you. Um, but there are a lot of folk who are wondering why is she being so nice to this guy who was such a staunch segregationist? Why so deferential to Strom Thurmond?

Washington-Williams: When I first met him, which was back in 1941, I was about 16 years old. My mother had introduced us. And from the time he met me, he’d been a wonderful person to me, and he’d done many things. I had an uncle and aunt who raised me, and as far as I was concerned, they were my parents. But to know that this was actually my father was even a lot more meaningful.

Tavis: Hmm. I–There’s so many parts of this story that I find absolutely amazing, and not the least of which is that you discovered at 16 that you were in fact half-white. Um, what kind of revelation must that have been at 16, to discover this, uh, alarming part of your history that you were totally unaware of?

Washington-Williams: Well, I never thought I was half-white or whatever. Color wasn’t anything I thought about, although I knew I was the fairest one in my family, because they were all darker-complexioned, including my mother. And, uh, when I met him, of course I was surprised, because she had not, uh, ever said anything about his color. It was a surprise, but I was very happy to meet him, and his color really didn’t matter to me.

Tavis: Speaking of meeting him, I’ve read in a number of places–I’ve been waiting to ask you to confirm this for me…I have read–and I’m not asking for too much in terms of detail, but just a confirmation, that there is a meeting that may be happening sometime soon between you and his other children. Any truth to this?

Washington-Williams: Well, they have indicated they would like to meet with me, and of course I’d like to meet with them. But as of this date, we have not set a time. We hope to do it before the year is out, but we don’t know right now.

Tavis: You know what I find funny about that? What I find funny about that is your brothers and sisters on the Strom Thurmond side could be your great-grandkids.

Washington-Williams: Yes!

Tavis: They’re in their 20s.

Washington-Williams: That’s true.

Tavis: What kind of family reunion do you think that’s going to be when it does happen at some point later this year?

Washington-Williams: I’ll probably feel more like their mother.

Tavis: Yeah.

Washington-Williams: But it will be a happy reunion, I’m sure. I’ll be very glad to meet them, because they have expressed a desire to want to meet me. So we do want to do that as soon as we can.

Tavis: How does that make you feel to know that they have in fact expressed a desire to want to meet you. They didn’t have to do that, but for whatever reason or reasons they’ve decided that they do what to meet you and spend some time with you, I suspect that’s got to make you feel good.

Washington-Williams: Oh, yes, it does. In fact, I’m very happy about that, to know that they do want to meet me. Because I’d like to meet them.

Tavis: Tell me about your life. I’ve been fascinated, not just about the part of your story that has to do with Strom Thurmond. That’s fascinating for me. But you’ve lived a rich and a full life, starting with teaching for 30-plus years.

Washington-Williams: Yes, um, when I graduated from high school, I lived in New York for about a year, and I decided that I wanted to go away to college, and I hadn’t decided on any special college at that time. And I was in touch with my father, uh, frequently in touch with him, and he had recommended this school down there in South Carolina which had a very good reputation. And, uh, I applied, and I went down there in that August of 1946 and started at the college. And I met lots of people that were very fine people, and I was very happy to be there. Even though I had lived in the South, I had left there at 6 months of age. But, uh, upon returning, it was a wonderful experience.

Tavis: I was gonna ask you, you’ve already answered it, but let me probe a little further. How involved, um, Senator Thurmond in was in your life? I hear you suggest now that he was involved in helping you make a decision about where to go to college, and as daughters want to reach out to their fathers, once you made the contact with him at 16 and knew who he was, um, did you feel free whenever you wanted to reach out to him to talk to him, to ask him advice, to ask his counsel on things?

Washington-Williams: Oh, yes. That was one of the things he did. He gave me lots of guidance. And whenever I felt I wanted to be in touch with him, I would call him. Or if he wasn’t available at that time, he would always call me back. So, we were in touch.

Tavis: How widespread from your vantage point–how widespread was this story for you? I mean before you came public with it. There were people you said earlier who had tried to get you to come out and talk about this. How widespread was this story? How many people knew about this, you think, before you actually came out to the world?

Washington-Williams: Well, I’m not sure how many. I do know that when the rumors started, when I was on the campus, it was all around–all the students talked about it. And– but they never approached me and asked me anything about it. However, I had a roommate who knew what was going on, and she would tell me many of the things being said. And, of course, I’d just laugh, and I didn’t want to discuss it, and I never talked about the situation to other people.

Tavis: Mm-hmm. I want to honor my agreement with your attorney who’s sitting off-camera here. So I know he’s gonna throw something at me if I ask you something that I promised I wouldn’t cover with you out of respect for you and this book I know that you’re gonna be working on here in a little bit, so I don’t want to ask you about Mr. Thurmond’s politics, but I do want to ask you a question about how you, in your own spirit and in your own person, were able to juxtapose this guy being a loving, if you will, and accessible father to you when you reached out to him once the contact was made with his politics. Did it ever bother you or concern you that the guy who you had established a relationship with, who for all intents and purposes, was cool with you, but was pushing an agenda that was antithetical to the best interests of African-American people?

Washington-Williams: Well, I was a student in college, and I was not into politics. However, when I heard some of the remarks that were made, I did–in talking with him, I did ask him about making the statements and about his stand on racism and so forth, and he explained to me that, uh, that’s the way things were in the South. And he didn’t seem to want to expound on that too much, so I didn’t question him too much further. But we did talk about that, and I thought maybe there was something he could do more positive.

Tavis: Did you express that to him?

Washington-Williams: And he did, but it came much later.

Tavis: Indeed in fact come much later, but it did–I guess better late than never.

Washington-Williams: Yes. It started in the seventies, see, and we’re talking about back in the forties.

Tavis: So it took you 40 years to get him to come around to the right side. But you kept working on it.

Washington-Williams: Oh, yes. He knew how I felt.

Tavis: Right. Let me ask you what you think this revelation does for his legacy. It’s one thing for people to talk to you, and again, I’m glad you’re on here, um, to tell your side of the story, but now that this man is dead and gone, what do you think this does to his legacy, as it were?

Washington-Williams: Well, in just talking with people since this has happened, people sort of look at him in a different light and not as harsh about the way they feel about him because they found out that he had done so many wonderful things that many of them didn’t even know about. They knew about the segregation and racism, and so forth. And when they found out he’d done so many things for black people, as far as setting up the first trade school in South Carolina, and in Washington, when he was a senator, he had the first black administrative aides. None of the other senators had that. And, uh, he assisted many African-American students during the time even when–there were many people. He was a very good man.

Tavis: I can see on the one hand how one who found herself in your situation could have been embittered and could’ve held a grudge, um, their entire life. But as I mentioned earlier, you went on, have gone on, I should say, to live a very productive life including being very much involved in your church. Tell me about the role that your faith has played in your life all these many years, keeping this secret.

Washington-Williams: Well, I had no reason to–I never even thought about wanting to reveal anything, although I had been questioned by magazines and some of the newspaper people to give them a story. They had heard the story and wanted to know about the relationship. I said he’s a friend of the family, which he was all those years. He was a friend of the family.

Tavis: That’s all you ever said?

Washington-Williams: Yes.

Tavis: Your standard line was he’s a friend of the family.

Washington-Williams: Yes.

Tavis: OK.

Washington-Williams: And, uh, of course they couldn’t take it any further, because I didn’t admit it, at that time. I didn’t admit it at all. Now, as far as my church is concerned, I belong to the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship, and I belonged there ever since I’ve been in Los Angeles, 40 years. And I had always been very active in my church. I had worked with the Sunday school. I had worked with the public relations board. And eventually, I became the moderator. And the moderator is an assistant to the pastor. At that time, the pastor was Reverend Madison Shockley. And we worked very closely together. And there were a few problems in the church, but they were eventually resolved. And, um, later I was honored by the church, back in about 1997, I believe it was.

Tavis: I’ve only got about 25 seconds here, and I want to ask you finally, if there is a lesson here for America out of your story, what do you think that lesson is, right quick?

Washington-Williams: Well, in thinking about that, I feel that my having come forth to reveal my story should be a lesson for all Americans and having America’s black, white, and all others live together in unity, and, uh, I think that’s one of the big problems that we’ve had in this country, would be race problems, more so than anywhere else, and that we need to close that gap.

Tavis: I’m glad you came on to talk to me.

Washington-Williams: Thank you.

Tavis: Nice to meet you.

Last modified: February 13, 2013 at 7:20 pm