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Thurmond's daughter: 'Tremendous weight' lifted

Retired teacher says she kept silent about father to protect him

Essie Mae Washington-Williams said Wednesday that she has gone public about her father because she wants her children to know their heritage.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams said Wednesday that she has gone public about her father because she wants her children to know their heritage.

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The daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist, said she kept her mixed-race ancestry secret to protect her father. CNN's David Mattingly reports (December 18)
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A Thurmond family attorney confirms the late lawmaker fathered a child with a black housekeeper.
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Special Report: Strom Thurmond's life 
Strom Thurmond
South Carolina

(CNN) -- The daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist, said Wednesday that she kept her mixed-race ancestry secret for decades out of respect for her father.

"I never wanted to do anything to harm him or cause detriment to his life or to the lives of those around him," Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a 78-year-old retired schoolteacher said at a news conference in Columbia, South Carolina.

"My father did a lot of things to help other people, even though his public stance appeared opposite.

"I was sensitive about his well-being and career and his family here in South Carolina."

Thurmond, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, died in June at age 100.

Washington-Williams said she went public with the information after Thurmond's death -- and only then at the urging of her children. Her revelation first appeared Sunday in The Washington Post, but rumors have persisted for years.

"... My children deserve the right to know from whom, where and what they have come," she said. "I am committed in teaching them and helping them to learn about their past."

Visibly emotional, Washington-Williams said she was not angry or bitter.

"In fact, there's a great sense of peace that has come over me in the past year," she said. "Once I decided that I would no longer harbor such a great secret that many others knew, I feel as though a tremendous weight has been lifted.

"I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams and, at last, I feel completely free."

Washington-Williams has four children, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

An attorney for the former senator's family confirmed Monday that Thurmond fathered a child with a teenage black housekeeper in 1925.

Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on the ticket of the States' Rights Democratic Party, or Dixiecrats, a breakaway faction of Southern Democrats who believed strongly in racial segregation and were opposed to their party's civil rights program.

He received 1 million votes and carried four Deep South states; Democrat Harry Truman won the election.

Thurmond joined the Republican Party in the 1960s and ultimately turned away from his segregationist past. (Thurmond's life and times)

Frank Wheaton, Washington-Williams' attorney, said his client has no plans to ask the Thurmond estate for any money, according to the Post.

Monday's statement from the Thurmond family reads: "As J. Strom Thurmond has passed away and cannot speak for himself, the Thurmond family acknowledges Ms. Essie Mae Washington-Williams' claim to her heritage. We hope this acknowledgment will bring closure for Ms. Williams."

The Thurmond family attorney, J. Mark Taylor, declined further comment.

Glenn Walters, a South Carolina attorney also representing Williams, told CNN he was happy that the matter had been resolved in this manner.

Washington-Williams reportedly was prepared to provide documentation and undergo a DNA test to prove her claim. Her attorney said no DNA test was done.

Her mother, Carrie Butler, worked as a maid at the Thurmond family home in Edgefield, South Carolina.

At the time of Washington-Williams' birth, Butler was 16 and Thurmond was 22, unmarried and living in his parents' home.

Butler's sister took the girl to live in Pennsylvania when she was 6 months old. She did not meet Thurmond until 1941 when she was 16.

Her mother, who was ill and died a short time later, had insisted on introducing her to Thurmond, who acknowledged her as his daughter, the Post reported.

Throughout the years, the two kept up a relationship despite the divide over race, Washington-Williams said.

"When my father became a United States senator, his communication and support continued" she said, and "his financial support was constant during various phases of my life. I knew him beyond his public image."

She said she tried -- to no avail -- to dissuade him of segregationist positions, which she didn't like and which produced "mixed emotions."

"I never did like the idea of his being a segregationist, but that was his life, and there wasn't anything I could do about that," she said.

She said the family secret wasn't airtight. She said she told her children when they were teenagers. When she visited her father in Washington, she said, "All of those on his staff knew exactly who I was."

CNN's David Mattingly contributed to this report.

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