Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond Book Review

Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond
by Essie Mae Washington-Williams

Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond is an interesting read because of the scandal it would have created had the truth of Senator Strom Thurmond's illegitimate black daughter become public knowledge during his heyday. A racist politician in South Carolina who unsuccessfully ran for president in 1948, he most famously opposed the Civil Rights Act because it would cause the "mongrelization" of the South.

Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond by Essie Mae Washington-Williams

In 1925, Thurmond was a wealthy twenty-three-year-old Southern man who took advantage of a black maid named Carrie. He frequented the garden and kitchen where she worked, and became interested in the beautiful young teenager. When a daughter results from their union, Essie Mae, she is squirreled away to live with an aunt, whom she calls 'mother' and doesn't meet Carrie until she is thirteen. Her surrogate mother conditions her to keep silent about race issues, and she meekly complies. 

Washington-Williams insists Thurmond loved her mother despite the uncrossable cultural gulf spanning between them, and cites evidence to support her belief. When Carrie takes her to meet her biological father, the girl carefully scrutinizes their behavior with one another. She picks up on some feeling between the pair and writes, "They were in love, clearly in love," a sad attempt to make sense of her birth. Thurmond also regularly supports Carrie with envelopes containing hundreds of dollars in cash, continues to see her throughout her life, doesn't marry until she dies, and most importantly, has a relationship with their daughter. He guides Essie Mae to a negro college in South Carolina and even visits her on occasion. He supports her with the same envelopes of cash her mother has received and always treats her with kindness.

Senator Strom Thurmond and His Black Daughter

However, Washington-Williams' natural craving for a sense of identity apparently leaves her with a romanticized version of events. She glaringly overlooks the clues indicating Thurmond's lack of love in its true definition. He keeps his liaison with Carrie a secret from almost everyone, especially his mother, a powerful figure in his family. The money he gives Carrie and later to Essie-Mae seems like a fortune to them, but it is in untraceable cash and is spare change when compared to his family's vast wealth. And when Carrie dies at thirty-eight, he not only doesn't attend the funeral, but he was unaware that she had even been sick. He never states that he has loved Carrie, and when Essie Mae finally asks him the question her readers have been waiting for, "How could you have loved my mother?" he doesn't answer. To his credit, he doesn't hurt Essie Mae by admitting an obvious but harsh truth, that lust is not love and physical intimacy doesn't guarantee commitment. 

Her moment of clarity comes after studying Southern history in the library when she says, "Southern racial orthodoxy... made me feel like the worst blot my proud, white family could conceivably have." By her own admission, Washington-Williams says "white men were entitled, by nearly divine right, to have the run of the hen house, or slave quarters." 

It is telling that Washington-Williams doesn't write her memoir until after Senator Thurmond's death. The man has kept Carrie and Essie Mae a carefully guarded secret, and they never demand the acknowledgement and full relationship a legal wife and child are entitled to. His daughter never upsets the apple cart of his well-ordered life and reputation, but she does eventually give in to her desire to declare her existence when she writes her memoir. It does contain photos, but there are no pictures of Carrie, which is disappointing. 

On rare occasions when Thurmond sees Essie Mae in public, he introduces her as a family friend. He never acknowledges his paternity. She is a skeleton in his closet, but she can't face this painful reality, claiming repeatedly that she knows he cares about her. Thurmond was obviously a conflicted man, and Washington-Williams is fortunate she didn't divulge the truth when it would have damaged her father's career. Who knows, her compliance may have even spared her life.


Washington-Williams, Essie Mae and Stadiem, William. Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005.

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