The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, December 14, 2003

Evidence of Ol' Strom's taste for brown sugar?

Apparently, the story is well-known amongst those who know such things well [1] - but Strom Thurmond, candidate of the States' Rights Party (aka Dixiecrats) in the US Presidential Election of 1948, had him some sweet loving with his father's maid [2] back in the 20s. And the fruit of their union, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, has decided to get her fifteen minutes right now (WaPo December 14 - link via TalkLeft).

To say that Thurmond was indiscreet is putting it mildly: according to the piece, having been elected Governor, he installed her in South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, and
arrived in his official car to visit with her.

As rumors of Essie Mae's relationship with Thurmond filtered through the South, leaders of an emerging civil rights movement sought to use the student as political ammunition.

Which raises the obvious question, What happened? The piece says that she was
first interviewed in 1984
- presumably, she had previously just issued flat denials, and the allegation couldn't go any further.

(And why didn't his opponents within the Democratic Party take advantage of the rumour? Or did they?

As I've pointed out before, Thurmond was elected in 1946 as a liberal - in Southern terms. As Governor, he ran in 1950 for the US Senate against Olin Johnston - ironically nicknamed Olin the Solon. So bitter did the primary contest get that, according to this obituary
There are politicians still alive who remember how the two tried to outdo each other as race-baiters. At one point in the campaign, Thurmond challenged Johnston to fight outside a courthouse debate in Newberry. They never threw punches.

Perhaps accusing an opponent of fathering a mulatto bastard was just a little too strong even for a bruiser like Johnston! [3])

It just so happens that an August 1964 [4] paperback by Harry Golden called Mr Kennedy and the Negroes comes to the top of the pile - which I've barely dipped into, but found the following (what he calls) joke (p24)
common...[i]n Negro homes in the city, and in Negro cabins on the farms of the South:
In the North, the white man says, 'Nigger, go as high as you can, but don't come close', and in the South, the white man says, 'Nigger, come as close as you can but don't go up'.

Amazing that the coelacanth of American politics should have lived so fundamental a part of the Southern sex/race myth complex: John Dollard's Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937), a Lynd-type [5] study of (I believe) Indianola, MS, included a section on interracial sex: from memory, a blind eye was turned to a good few solid citizens' maintaining Negro concubines across the tracks in Niggertown on the QT (as well as the much larger numbers who would cross those tracks just for sex.). But the one guy who had (because he'd been outed?) an open interracial relationship soon found the place too hot.

But, although Thurmond's miscegenation is something of a Southern classic, I keep coming back to why he acted so riskily with Essie Mae; and why someone didn't try to make political capital of the rumours when they were fresh...

  1. And readers of various biographies, including this one. The Post piece says
    Noted political writer Robert Sherrill described an alleged daughter without providing a name in a 1968 book. The Post identified Williams by her maiden name in 1992, in a lengthy account of Williams's relationship with Thurmond. The article reported that "both Thurmond and the supposed daughter have denied that he is her father, and no one has provided evidence that he is."

  2. His father, it seems, was the chief operative for Benjamin R Tillman (aka 'Pitchfork Ben' Tillman).

    Thurmond Senior looks well worth further investigation, if this bio is anything to go by:

    Thurmond, John William (1862-1934) -- also known as J. William Thurmond; Will Thurmond -- of Edgefield, Edgefield County, S.C. Father of James Strom Thurmond, Sr.; grandfather of James Strom Thurmond, Jr. Born in Morgana, Meriwether Township, Edgefield County, S.C., May 1, 1862. Democrat. Teacher; Lawyer; member of South Carolina state house of representatives, 1894-96; Solicitor, South Carolina Fifth Judicial Circuit, 1896-1904; candidate for U.S. Representative from South Carolina 2nd District, 1902 (primary); President, South Carolina Democratic State Convention, 1906; U.S. Attorney for the Western District of South Carolina, 1915-21. Served as special judge and as special associate justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court on occasion. In 1897, shot and killed Willie G. Harris, a political opponent, at the Edgefield courthouse square, for calling him a "low, dirty, scoundrel.", but was later acquitted on the grounds of self-defense at trial. Served as campaign manager and personal attorney for Benjamin "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman. Baptist. Member, Knights of Pythias; Woodmen. Died on June 17, 1934. Burial location unknown.
  3. The 1950 Senate elections also included the infamous campaign of Willis Smith in North Carolina (run by Jesse Helms) (piece of December 7 2002): the wife of a guy working for Smith's opponent, the saintly Frank Graham, received an offer by phone of a little stewed nigger for breakfast.

    The Party of Treason - dontcha love it?!

  4. After the enactment of the Civil Rights Act. Apart from the anecdotage, journalistic books like this are great for erasing hindsight - for instance, from memory, Edward Behr's Penguin book on the Algerian war went to press just after the April 1961 attempted coup, but didn't assume that a French scuttle was inevitable. (Said scuttle was completed around 15 months later!)

  5. A study similar to the Middletown studies by Robert and Helen Lynd of Muncie, IN.

The story of the maid, Carrie Butler, also has me curious: all to easy to assume something close to rape (threat to lose her her place, that sort of thing); but perhaps there was real affection on both sides; was the sex just the once, or a sustained affair? Did she get some sort of payoff at the time she left the Thurmonds' service?

And will the Thurmonds ask for proof?

I'm assuming there's a book coming - not to mention a TV movie.

(I'm also assuming the story's true, natch...)

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