When it hit the news that the secret black daughter of the late Strom Thurmond finally decided to come forward, my initial reaction was not one of surprise or shock. It didn’t to me that different from the brouhaha’s about Thomas Jefferson’s liason with Sally Hemmings. But when I saw this arcticle about how the Thurmond family is “struggling” with this now-revealed truth, I had to shake my head with wonder.
Like others, Ms. Freeman heard rumors for years that her uncle, a legendary politician in the South who rose to fame as a fiery segregationist, had fathered a child with a black maid. But she never had to confront the truth, not like this.
“I went to a church meeting the other day and all these people came up to me and you could tell they didn’t know what to say,” Ms. Freeman said. “For the first time in my life, I felt shame.”
For the first time in her life, huh? My first thought was “well, sugar, join the club.” That statement, in fact, the whole article reminds me of the queer phenomenon of amnesia that affected the southern whites I came into contact with when I was growing up in the south. The same kind of amnesia that affected Trent Lott when he praised Thurmond, saying that the country would have been better off had Thurmond been elected President (when he ran on a rabidly segregationist platform).
Most southern whites are aware, if only vaguely of the race-related atrocities and mis-deeds of the past, but only in an abstract, disconnected way, because so rarely do those deeds actually come home in the form of flesh and blood members of their own families who took part. Great-grandpa’s white Klan robes are likely hidden away in a trunk in some elderly relative’s attic, unseen and probably unkown for a generation or more. The photo of grandma smiling at a local lynching, and pointing – along with other friends and neighbors – to the charred body hanging above, is probably in a photo album long since packed away and unopened for several decades. The charred finger and Uncle Billy Joe cut off as a souvenire has long since been lost. And the children of liasons between powerful white men and powerless black women? Well, even if known they were never acknowledged, and usually either quietly went away or blended in to the background so as not to disturb the way things appeared to be.
“Strom rose to such stature, you just wonder how in the world this could have gone on,” said Ms. Freeman, 64, a retired teacher in Lugoff, S.C. “My family always had help around the house. But it just seems Strom would have been above that.”
“Above that.” That statement leapt out at me to, as an echo of some of the objections to the liason between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. One historian went so far as to say it was a “moral impossibility” that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with his slave, let alone fathered children by her.
“Above that,” indeed. Thus far, reports that I have seen have been vague about the relationship between Essie Mae Washington-Williams’ mother, who worked as a domestic in the Thurmond Home, and the late Senator. One report simply described it as “an affair.” But that brief description gives short shrift to the reality of power at that time and in that relationship, and completely ignores the delicate question of consent.
Understandably, though the rape of a black woman by a white man was a common occurance in the South at that time and for centuries before, media sources are more than a little reluctant to even seem to be considering putting the late Thurmond in that category.
However, the same question arises here as did in the Hemming’s/Jefferson debate. Could this have been, in any sense, a consensual relationship? Consider first the imbalance of power – for, if you ask me, it is key to understanding the nature of such liasons whether categorized as rapes or relationships. Was consent even possible? Facing the ardor of a powerful white man, could a black woman honestly refuse consent, without bringing dire consequences upon herself and her family? Whether she fought or simply acquiesced, could Washington-Williams’ mother have rejected the Thurmond’s advances – remember he was the son of a powerfil white family in the area & state – without it bringing down consequences on her and her loved ones? Remember also that she was about 16 at the time, and he was 22.
For decades, rumors swirled in South Carolina that Mr. Thurmond, who had once declared that “all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes,” had fathered a mixed-race child with a teenage black maid when he was 22.
For my money, there can’t be much in the way of consent when the balance of power between the two is so unequal, and particularly when one is ultimately in a position of authority over the other; whether as owner or employer. So, to me, it boils down to Thurmond taking full advantage of the power his race and his gender afforded him in his society, and the lack of power Washington-Williams mother had because of her race and gender, to get what he wanted at the time. It makes Thurmond no different from any number of “southern gentlemen” of the time, who didn’t want to sit at a lunch counter with blacks, but would bed down with one in the context of the power afforded them by their race and their gender in their soceity.
It comes down to not seeing the other – in this case a black woman – as a human being, but as a thing to be used to ones own end. If we can see that, then it’s possible that we can see how that same context – but with different players in different roles – is being constantly created, right up to today.
As much as we would like to believe those days are gone and far behind us, there’s some truth in the old saying “the past isn’t past … it isn’t even gone.” Every now and then a ghost rises up, or is conjured up, to remind us just how close to it we live day to day. Whether from the mouth of Trent Lott, or DNA results, or a revelation like that of Essie Mae Washington-Williams, there are reminders all around us.
So, I can’t be bothered with sympathy for the Thurmond family’s “struggle” over this most recent reminder of days not-so-far gone by.
Ms. Freeman said she was not sure if she was ready to meet Ms. Washington-Williams, who has said she wants to connect with as many members of the family as possible.
“If I do, I’m not going to go with open arms,” Ms. Freeman said. “It’s too much to accept right now.”
Tell me those times aren’t still with us.