Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond

Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond

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by Essie Mae Washington-Williams, William Stadiem

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Breaking nearly eight decades of silence, Essie Mae Washington–Williams comes forward with a story of unique historical magnitude and incredible human drama. Her father, the late Strom Thurmond, was once the nation's leading voice for racial segregation (one of his signature political achievements was his 24–hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act


Breaking nearly eight decades of silence, Essie Mae Washington–Williams comes forward with a story of unique historical magnitude and incredible human drama. Her father, the late Strom Thurmond, was once the nation's leading voice for racial segregation (one of his signature political achievements was his 24–hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, done in the name of saving the South from "mongrelization"). Her mother, however, was a black teenager named Carrie Butler who worked as a maid on the Thurmond family's South Carolina plantation.

Set against the explosively changing times of the civil rights movement, this poignant memoir recalls how she struggled with the discrepancy between the father she knew–one who was financially generous, supportive of her education, even affectionate–and the Old Southern politician, railing against greater racial equality, who refused to acknowledge her publicly. From her richly told narrative, as well as the letters she and Thurmond wrote to each other over the years, emerges a nuanced, fascinating portrait of a father who counseled his daughter about her dreams and goals, and supported her in reaching them–but who was unwilling to break with the values of his Dixiecrat constituents.

With elegance, dignity, and candor, Washington–Williams gives us a chapter of American history as it has never been written before–told in a voice that will be heard and cherished by future generations.

Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
Despite such provocation, Dear Senator is not an angry book. (Essie Mae's closest approximation of rebellion: "I hate to say this, sir, but do you realize how black people feel about you?") But it manages to be an oddly candid one, less about Mr. Thurmond than about Essie Mae's lifelong sense of dislocation. Despite the ghostwriterly pawprints of Mr. Stadiem, and the shoehorning in of historical material (does the reader really need to be told how the terms lynch and redneck originated?), this memoir has its own voice and its own perspective. It's the story of a woman whose sense of her heritage is poignant, strangely distorted and hard-won indeed.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
"Every girls wants her daddy," says the recently revealed daughter of an affair between 23-year-old Strom Thurmond and the family's 15-year-old black maid, "and I wanted mine." In this surprising and sometimes poignant memoir, Washington-Williams reveals how, when she was 16, she learned that her real father was "a handsome, charming, and rich white lawyer." Washington-Williams was raised by an aunt; her biological mother, who died at 38 in a hospital's poverty ward, rarely appears. But Washington-Williams fashions her a kind of love story: "I knew [Thurmond] loved my mother. I believed he loved me, after his fashion." His fashion, as he lives out his political career-governor, presidential candidate, senator-involves surreptitious visits marked by vacuous advice and extravagant gifts. Much that others might have found bitter is given a rosy spin: as a great-aunt remembers slavery, "The massahs all looked after their children, no matter who birthed them." As Washington-Williams has it, Robert E. Lee was a "great American" and "Strom Thurmond turned out to be right about a lot of things, though segregation wasn't one of them." Washington-Williams asserts, "I am every bit as white as I am black, and it is my full intention to drink the nectar of both goblets," and notes that she has sought to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Readers are left to sort out the contradictions for themselves. Photos. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Dear Senator

A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond
By Washington-Williams, Essie Mae


ISBN: 0060760958

Chapter One

Summer of '38

I always thought I had a fairly normal childhood, until I found out my parents weren't who I thought they were. I grew up in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a small town in the hills along the Brandywine River on the threshold of the rich farmland of the Amish country. We were only forty miles from Philadelphia, and the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad ran through our town. And yet Philadelphia might as well have been the moon. That was the Big City. Coatesville was nowhere, but for a little girl it was everywhere -- it was all I had and all I knew. Coatesville was what was considered a one-horse town, but that horse was a very powerful steed called steel. The Lukens Steel Company dominated everything about our town. Its dozens of soaring smokestacks dominated the skyline. They were our own skyscrapers. Even the smoke belching from those enormous stacks was a point of pride, not pollution. That pungent, thick, black soot meant the mills were working full blast, that the little town was booming. It was the smell of money.

Like most men in Coatesville, my father, John Henry Washington, worked for the steel mills. Bethlehem Steel and Worth Brothers Steel had huge plants in Coatesville, but the colossus was Lukens Steel. Like an industrial octopus, Lukens had devoured itsrivals and made them its own. The matriarch of the business was a legendary local character named Rebecca Lukens, known as "The Woman of Steel." She was an independent woman, far ahead of her time, a Pennsylvania version of a steel magnolia. Rebecca was the driving force behind the expansion of her family 's Brandywine Iron Works into an international powerhouse. She was one of the first women in America to run a major company, and her daughter married a man named Huston. When I was growing up, the Hustons were Coatesville's first family. They lived in a grand manor house called Terracina and were to Coatesville what the Kennedys or the Rockefellers are to America. Despite the small size of the town (15,000 people), I never met a Huston, and, by the same token, I never aspired to become a woman of steel. American women today have those sort of huge "have it all" ambitions, but growing up black during the Great Depression, I was perfectly happy to dream about becoming a nurse. That was a pretty big deal at the time, and I was more ambitious than most.

My mother, or at least the woman who I thought was my mother, kept house, while daddy worked on the assembly line. Mother had worked as a picker in the cotton fields of South Carolina and said that was enough hard labor for two lifetimes. I had a half-brother, Calvin Burton, who was my mother's son by a previous relationship, which I later learned was not an actual marriage. Calvin was seven years older than I, and by the time I was thirteen, in 1938, he had left home to live in New York City. I had fantasies of following him there, to become a nurse in a big city hospital, but these were only fantasies. At thirteen, I still hadn't gotten to Philadelphia.

We lived in a small, two-story, three-bedroom row house in a neighborhood called The Spruces, named after the tree, which was populated by other black steelworkers. Most of them, like my family, hailed from the South. I had my own room, which seemed like a castle to me. The house was heated with coal stoves, and there was no running water or any bathrooms. We had to use an outhouse in the back and take tub baths in the bedroom using water we'd carry from an outside pump. It sounds primitive, but it seemed normal then, although the winters were awfully cold, and the day of the week the big sanitation trucks would come to clean the outhouses was the smelliest day you could imagine. We'd all try to stay away from home on that day. I remember visiting the home of a white girlfriend. The house wasn't any nicer than ours, but it did have an indoor toilet. It seemed like the ultimate in high technology at the time.

I'll never forget the wonderful dinners we'd have: fried chicken, biscuits, lots of fresh vegetables, and the sweetest pies made with local peaches, strawberries, apples, and plums. Every night was like Thanksgiving. My mother, who was tall and slim and a great cook, always wore a kerchief around her head. That seemed old-fashioned at the time, as did her habit of chewing tobacco and expelling it into a spittoon. I gathered that it was an old southern custom she'd brought with her. I didn't question her about it. In fact, I didn't tend to question things at all. My parents were of the "children should be seen and not heard" school. As a little girl I started out quite chatty, but one day my mother warned me "that mouth of yours can get you into trouble," after which I learned to keep it shut.

We never talked much at those fine dinners, partly because we were all listening to the radio all through the meal. That was our ear to the world. Despite all the bad news that seemed to be coming through the airwaves -- the seemingly endless Depression, the rise of the Nazis in Europe, disasters like the Hindenburg airship explosion -- the feeling around the table was very positive. My father, a handsome man who always came to the table after a hard, dusty day at the mills immaculate and smelling deliciously of soap and cologne, always said a blessing of thanks, for the food, for his job, for his wonderful family, and for funny or odd things, like Shirley Temple, or Charlie Chan, or Heinz ketchup ... Continues...

Excerpted from Dear Senator by Washington-Williams, Essie Mae Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Essie Mae Washington-Williams worked as a teacher in the Los Angeles school district for twenty-seven years. The mother of four children, grandmother of thirteen, and great-grandmother of four, she lives in Los Angeles.

William Stadiem was a Harvard JD-MBA and Wall Street lawyer before embarking for Hollywood, where he has written the screenplays for such films as Franco Zeffirelli's Young Toscanini, starring Elizabeth Taylor. He wrote the bestselling Marilyn Monroe Confidential, and Lullaby and Good Night with Vincent Bugliosi. Formerly the Hollywood columnist for Andy Warhol's Interview as well as food critic for Los Angeles magazine, Stadiem lives in a home overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica, California.

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Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wish this was required reading in school. Our children have no idea how people lived back when the author was growing up. A wonderful history lesson.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although the literary style does not reach the highest peaks, the story, as it is told, is incredibly compelling. As a northern, fair-skinned, black woman, Strom Thurmond represented, to me, all the evil that the South had to offer... until I read this book. It helped me to understand the lifestyle of the South, why my fair-skinned, blue-eyed grandmother insisted I continue to pursue my education, and how a young, 'black' woman could love a secret father like Strom Thurmond. More Black Americans need to embrace the idea of taking advantage of and furthering their education and making the most of the suffering of our ancestors. In many ways, we are all composed of the 'melting pot' heritage that this country supposedly represents. Essie Mae Washington-Williams represents the strength of the Black American woman while also showing respect to her white ancestors, her elders and to God. Her pride in her heritage, on both sides of her family, was found only by digging deeply enough to know her father in the only way she could. May we learn to stand up as Black Americans and make the most of our American heritage.
Guest More than 1 year ago
relationships , has no color , life , no matter what color your mother or father. life is a wonderful thing. wow ! what an untold love story. i can't wait to read the book
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this memoir greatly. The historical references made it feel as if I was enjoying a rich and wonderful story by a campfire told by my older relatives. I enjoyed this book, because of its candid feel. I fully expected to hate Strom Thurmond, but instead I came to pity him. Essie May did not write a politically correct autobiography. She wrote what she felt. With all my grandparents deceased and never having been able to hear their wonderful stories of life, this book is heartfelt and generous in the telling of the story of Mrs. Washington-William's life. I envy her descendents, she has left a legacy for them to share and cherish with themselves and the world. I only wish that I had had an opportunity to hear my Grand-Parents lives from them, as well.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I wonder what sort of romance would have occurred in Jim Crow's S.Carolina between a 23 yr old massah and 15year old black maid. Could it have been rape?
Guest More than 1 year ago
Credit Essie Mae Washington with the class and disgnity not to emerge from the shadows during her father's lifetime and cause him grief in his political career. But credit her more for enduring the isolation, rejection and lies that the American apartheid system, so ably defended by her father, caused her.To her immense credit, nothing seemed to stand in the way of her getting ahead in life and making a proper life for herself and her family, which she so capably did. This story is just heartwrenching, told without bitterness or cant - wish our whole system of race relations were so.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books, that I have EVER had the pleasure of reading. It will absorb your soul and senses, in a way that a scrumptious piece of chocolate will do. DeFacto... having an ORGASM on the written word.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really feel sorry for this woman. That's all, just pity. I cannot comprehend how awful it must have been to be denied by your own father in public, I cannot judge her for keeping this secret, it would be a tough decision to make. So, I can accept that she will always love the father that never showed love to her, not in public anyway. But, to me, Thurmond will always be a total redneck bigot. If he truly ever had a change of heart, this would not have gone to the grave.--- Redneck-n.- a white man who will sleep with a black woman, but won't go to school with her-- Shame on you South Carolina, you knew better, but you voted for him anyway.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book was very well written, and kep my attention. I was very well aware of Strom Thurmond, and had no idea he had a daughter with a black woman.