Dear Senator

You have to give it to the late Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina who served for forty-eight years in the U.S. Senate, and who was still in office at the age of 100. Conducting a twenty-four hour filibuster, one of the longest ever, to oppose the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and one of the most virulent segregationists of his time - he certainly didn’t let his politics interfere with his private life.

At the age of 22, he fathered a daughter with a sixteen year old black maid who worked on his family’s South Carolina plantation. Essie ‘Mae’ Washington was born in October 1925, and raised by her maternal aunt and uncle. She met her father for the first time at age 16 when her mother took her to meet him at his law office.

Over the years the two formed a close bond even as she struggled with the dichotomy between his public views and his private treatment of her. In her book, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond (2005) Essie recounted how her father could not bring himself to publicly admit their relationship. To his credit, however, he did counsel and financially provide for her, and Essie suggested that the relationship between her parents was a fairly warm one. She noted that her father did not marry until he was forty-five years old and alludes that one of the reasons was due to his continuing affection for her mother.

Analyzing Strom Thurmond through a 2016 lens, I understand even if I don’t appreciate why he didn’t soften his racial politics knowing he had a biracial daughter. His life, however, serves as a reminder of how racism diminishes all of us. Despite his wealth and power, Strom Thurmond never reached his full human potential because of the enormous secret he carried and his daughter, Essie, didn’t get to publicly acknowledge the father she came to love until after his death.

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