BY KEN CUMMINS
Stories linking Sen. Strom Thurmond with Essie Washington have been woven into the fabric of Southern political folklore.
Clearly, the two share a special relationship, but is she really his daughter?
"All the bayonets in the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation," Thurmond said then in one of his speeches.
Many who still recall his fiery, segregationist rhetoric of that turbulent period say Thurmond often referred to blacks as "niggers" and swore they would never be allowed to darken the doorways of public buildings.
At the same time he was preaching segregation now and forever, Thurmond discreetly was financing the education of a black coed business administration major at all-black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg.
That fact, had it become known at the time, could have ended Thurmond's remarkable political career before it even got started, said Southern historian Robert Sherrill.
Thurmond's relationship with and support of this black woman has continued to this day, according to the woman's in-laws and members of Thurmond's Senate staff.
But those who knew of the unusual relationship back then see no contradiction in Thurmond's championing segregation while helping a young black woman get ahead in life, because the woman purportedly is his daughter.
Thurmond, born at the turn of the century when the Civil War defeat still hung heavy over South Carolina, has lived a life that has spanned the 20th Century, which has seen considerable change in southern ways.
And Thurmond, in supporting a black woman he supposedly sired, remained loyal to one of the codes of his youth, said Bennettsville lawyer Frank E. Cain, a classmate of the woman purported to be the senator's daughter at South Carolina State in the late 1940s.
That code required white boys, who often learned about sex "on the colored side of town," to take care of any children they fathered.
"It's just a carry-over from slavery where the white landlord had his black family," Cain said recently. "That's the old South."
Thurmond, he said, sprang from those plantation roots. "Thurmond hated black folks," Cain contends. "I think his reasons for helping Essie were strictly personal."
The woman widely believed to be Thurmond's black daughter is Essie Mae Washington, born in Thurmond's native Edgefield in 1925.
At the time of Washington's birth, her mother worked for Edgefield's segregated school system, and Thurmond taught and coached white students.
While Thurmond advanced from those humble beginnings to national prominence, Washington has lived a life in the shadows. Six months after she was born, her mother moved to Pennsylvania, where Essie grew up and graduated from high school. She returned to South Carolina to attend college, where she met her husband.
During a brief interview in June, 1994, Washington said the senator "has been of assistance" to her, but "I don't have anything to say on that. I don't want to say anything that could hurt somebody who has done so much good," she said. "Why don't you write about the good things he has done for people?"
When this reporter replied that he considered Thurmond's longtime and continuing support of her to be one of the more remarkable things he has done, Washington fell silent, and refused to answer any more questions.
The story of Essie Washington is well-known in South Carolina among people, black and white, who lived in the state and were active in politics in the late 1940s and 1950s when this tale circulated widely.
During those years, Thurmond, a highly decorated war hero, was at the forefront of South Carolina and national politics. He served as governor from 1947-51, ran for president in 1948 on the anti-integration Dixiecrat ticket, and won election to the U.S. Senate on a write-in vote an unheard of feat in 1954.
The story of Thurmond's black daughter, or references to it, has appeared in print before. On Oct. 11, 1972, The Edgefield Advertiser, the newspaper in the small town where Thurmond was born, covered its entire front page with the following provocative headline: "SEN. THURMOND IS UNPRINCIPLED WITH COLORED OFFSPRING WHILE PARADING AS A DEVOUT SEGREGATIONIST."
But the story inside the Advertiser, South Carolina's oldest newspaper, provided no details about "colored offspring." W.W. Mims, the newspaper's crusty, 85-year-old editor, has been a foe of Thurmond's for more than 20 years.
A reporter for The State subsequently asked Thurmond about the allegation, but the senator brushed aside the question with a non-denial.
Former South Carolina journalist Marilyn W. Thompson, who had worked on the story over a 10-year period, penned a lengthy account of her research in the Aug. 4, 1992, edition of The Washington Post, where she now works as an editor.
One of Washington's classmates claims that a reference to Thurmond having sired a black daughter appeared in The Pittsburgh (Pa.) Courier, a black-owned newspaper that continues to publish today.
Albert A. "Blue" Kennedy, vividly recalled that the Courier ran a lengthy article in 1949 or 1950 focusing on Washington and her family ties to Thurmond. A search of back issues of the Courier on file at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., failed to confirm Kennedy's recollection. The newspaper's current owners do not have copies of the Courier from that period.
Kennedy said that Thurmond, governor of South Carolina at the time, never denied the Courier's story. "What got me was, there was never a protest or never an argument from his side," Kennedy said in a phone interview. "One thinks he protests too little."
Mims said his front-page headline also did not draw a denial from Thurmond, who was then serving in the U.S. Senate.
Kennedy was the first graduate of South Carolina State School of Law in 1950. Julius Williams, Kennedy's friend who married undergraduate Washington, a business major, while in law school, was the second. Both men graduated in 1950, Thurmond's last full year as governor.
The law school was opened during Thurmond's term so the state could continue to bar blacks from the University of South Carolina School of Law. The courts had sanctioned the separate school for blacks.
Kennedy remembers that Thurmond came to the black university's campus often during his years as governor to visit his daughter. Those visits which Kennedy refers to as "special audiences" took place in school president Miller Whitaker's office, out of sight of the students.
But Leo Kerford, a professor at the law school at the time, recalls seeing Thurmond and Washington together on campus. "He would come and visit and sit out on the center court with her," Kerford said. "He wasn't trying to hide it."
"It was so well-known," he said, "I believe it was a fact. The talk was that he would visit her and hand her money. Her girlfriends in the dormitory would wait for her to come back with money from Daddy."
Kerford said such conduct was not considered unusual at the time, even though Thurmond was the nation's leading political voice for segregation. "That's how he got his start, by yelling nigger' louder than anyone else."
An official currently with the college confirmed that Thurmond had paid Washington's tuition on at least one occasion.
Cain, a 1951 graduate of the law school, also remembers those visits. "Gov. Thurmond used to come over to the college quite frequently," he recalled. Cain said Thurmond would arrive in his "big, black Cadillac limousine" with the state flag flying from the fender and a South Carolina patrolman at the wheel.
He said he saw the governor's car on campus once or twice a semester, but never actually saw Thurmond. Each time, word would quickly spread among the students that the governor had come to visit his daughter.
Cain said Washington would be summoned to the president's office, and would sometimes enter the administration building, known as Miller Hall, through the back entrance. "[Thurmond] would come to the administration building and meet the girl in the president's office," Cain said.
Modjeska Simkins, a longtime civil rights activist who died in 1992 at the age of 92, was leader of the state NAACP when Thurmond was governor. Simkins told a story about visiting President Whitaker and being interrupted by his secretary, who announced that the governor was there to see his daughter.
She said that the president explained to her that the governor's daughter had violated curfew, and that Thurmond was down to have a talk with her.
Simkins said that it was long-believed in the black community that Thurmond had fathered a black daughter, but because "he did right by her" no one would talk about it while he was still alive.
After the Oct. 11, 1972, edition of his newspaper appeared, Mims said Thurmond was asked about the allegation by Jack Bass, a reporter for The Charlotte Observer. Mims said Bass later told him Thurmond responded by saying Mims had better watch himself, but did not deny the allegation itself.
John Wrighten, who refers to himself as "professor/attorney," filed the lawsuit that led to the creation of South Carolina State Law School. Wrighten, now living in New London, Conn., said he, Julius Williams and Washington were close friends during law school and afterwards. Williams tutored him through some of his classes, and Washington typed his law school papers during her senior year.
"I don't think she was Thurmond's daughter," Wrighten said, "I believe it was a fact."
Wrighten remembers many occasions in the school cafeteria, at parties and on campus when women at the college would tease Washington about being Thurmond's daughter.
"She was quite dignified," he said. "She would never even look at them."
Wrighten said he heard "never a word from her mouth, never a word from her husband's mouth" about Washington's relationship to Thurmond. "There were so many half-white children at South Carolina State College when I went there five or six girls you couldn't distinguish from white girls." He said Washington was in that group.
Washington's sister-in-law, Charlotte Johnson of Savannah, said that when her brother married, "He told us she was Thurmond's daughter. Essie said the same thing."
Johnson said she initially was skeptical of Washington's claimed birthright. But she became convinced it was true because "whenever she was in need of money (after college), she'd say she was contacting him, and then she would come back with the money." Robert, a cousin of Washington's late husband, confirmed Johnson's account.
Chris Cimko, Thurmond's press secretary, said that there have been no inquires regarding Washington during her tenure, but that she "had read all the reports." Cimko had nothing to add to Thurmond's 1992 statement that he did assist Washington with her tuition and that she "occasionally drops by (Thurmond's office) when she is in the area."
As Thurmond prepares for his eighth run for the U.S. Senate, one of South Carolina's most persistent rumors about its most durable politician remains unresolved.
Ken Cummins is an investigative reporter and contributing editor of City Paper in Washington D.C.
At the same time he was preaching segregation now and forever, Thurmond discreetly was financing the education of a black co-ed business administration major at all-black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. That fact, had it become known, could have ended Thurmond's political career before it got started.
"There was never a protest or never an argument from his side. One thinks he protests too little."