Remember Essie Mae Washington-Williams? The daughter Strom Thurmond had with his family’s black domestic servant? Well, she’s back in the news, in a way that may have Strom and some other long deceased Confederates spinning in their graves. I’m not sure what to make of this but Ms. Washington-Williams is seeking to join the Daughters of the Confederacy. And apparently, she’s elligible.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a biracial woman who stepped forward last year to acknowledge that she was the daughter of the late Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, now wants to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization of descendants of soldiers who fought for the South in the Civil War.
Evidently she is eligible: Senator Thurmond, once a fierce segregationist, was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a similar group for men. Ms. Washington-Williams, a 78-year-old retired teacher who lives in Los Angeles, also plans to apply for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Black Patriots Foundation, which honors black Revolutionary War fighters. One of her two sons will apply to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, her lawyer said.
The announcement, which was made this week, was in keeping with the confounding nature of a story that some said was emblematic of racist hypocrisy in the South, but which produced no apparent bitterness on the part of Ms. Washington-Williams. Her mother, Carrie Butler, was a maid in the Thurmond family home in South Carolina and was 16 when she gave birth to Ms. Washington-Williams. Mr. Thurmond saw her about once a year and gave her financial support, she has said.
…Ms. Washington-Williams is joining the Confederate organization not to honor the soldiers that fought for a Southern way of life dependent on slavery, but to explore her genealogy and heritage, her lawyer, Frank K. Wheaton, said yesterday. In applying, she claims an honor that can be bestowed only on someone of her lineage, he said, and she hopes to encourage other blacks in a similar position to do the same.
In a statement, Ms. Washington-Williams said: “It is important for all Americans to have the opportunity to know and understand their bloodline. Through my father’s line, I am fortunate to trace my heritage back to the birth of our nation and beyond. On my mother’s side, like most African-Americans, my history is broken by the course of human events.”
“Broken by the course of human events.” You can say that again. Of course, Washington-Williams isn’t much different from any number of African Americans—especially those from the South—in how her genealogy is affected by “the course of human events.” Go back far enough into the genealogy of many African Americans and one will encounter dead ends and indelicate dealings.
My own foray into genealogy stemmed from hearing the story of my grandfather’s birth. As the story goes, my grandfather was born to very dark-skinned parents, with the surname Lockhart. But when he was born, my grandfather was light-skinned and had straight, black hair. Mr. Lockhart declared the child was not his, and wanted it out of his house. Mrs. Lockhart found a family black familiy named Heath, to adopt him. The family legend is that my grandfather was the product of a liason between Mrs Lockhart, who worked as a domestic, and her white employer. Whether it was a consensual affair, or a matter of rape, no one can confirm at this point.
Starting with that story, and census records, I found my grandfather’s adoptive family. A quick call back home to my dad confirmed that I had all the right names, in the right town. I also tracked down my grandfather’s birthmother via the census records. However, she was not listed with her husband. She was listed as a domestic in the home of a white farmer by the name of Jesse McCrary. (I forget the correct spelling at this point); the man who was likely my grandfather’s birthfather.
At that point, I returned to my grandfather’s adoptive family, intending to get back to the Lockhart and McCrary lines later. Through census records and slave schedules, I traced them all the way back to an ancestor born around 1847, who was a slave on the plantation of John Burge Heath (thus the source of my own surname), a Virginia farmer who had moved to Georgia. I even managed to find information confirming that the plantation house of John Burge Heath was still standing as late as 1985, and across the street from it was a cemetary in which many of the familie slaves were buried.
Unfortunately, in the slave schedules—literally an inventory of the slave owner’s human property, taken along with the census—slave’s are not listed with their families, but simply by age and gender. So while I was able to locate my ancestor, Henry Heath, I wasn’t able to locate his parents. However, that the plantation house was still standing, and thus survived the Civil War without being burned, there remains the possibility that somewhere plantation records exist that might yet take me back another generation or two.
But that’s as far as I got. It was during my college years, and so I was busy with other things and never got back to it. Still, the possibility always remains that I may resume my genealogical search, and uncover some of the other lines in my family. At the time of the last slave schedule, John Burge Heath had a 100 year old slave on his plantation, named Dolly. I’ve always thought that if I could find some connection to her, it would take me back a far leap in my research.
One thing I can say for sure is that it is one thing to understand the history of slavery, etc. It is entirely another thing to reach back into one’s lineage and uncover a family member who was indeed a slave; to give a name to someone you’re connected to, who lived through the experience of slavery. For me, it was a moment that caused me to pause and think of all I’d read, and then consider that Henry Heath (who chose to keep his owner’s surname for some reason; perhaps because he was related by blood?)lived through it; not to mention Mrs. Lockhart—who is also my ancestor—and who may well have lived through the reality of being raped, or used against her will, unable to say no, becoming pregnant as a result, and then having to give away her child. History, then, is no longer abstract.
Knowing even a little of one’s genealogy as an African American, requires confronting some uncomfortable realities. I can only imagine how Essie Mae Washington-Williams has handled knowlege of her own lineage through the years. I’m not sure how I feel about her seeking to joing the Daughters of the Confederacy, but at the very least it forces people to remember some of the less-than-gallant things about the “old south.” And so, maybe it will cause some people to be more thoughtful in considering the realities of race in America today.