Why Strom Thurmond's Mixed Race Child Ended Up in Coatesville, Pennsylvania

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Ms. Wills is a writer, researcher, and genealogist, and author of the book, Notes and Documents of Free Persons of Color: Colonial Virginia, 1650-1850 (March 2003).

The first chapter of my book, Notes And Documents of Free Persons of Color, begins in 1950's Coatesville, Pennsylvania. The town is now a household word, being the place where Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the biracial daughter of Strom Thurmond, was raised.

Coatesville was a steel town made up mostly of immigrants, many of whom were from Communist countries. The blacks living in the community were by and large from the South. They moved there to work in the steel mills and to seek better economic opportunities.

Ms. Washington, like most children, loves her father, and can overlook his segregationist views. Strom Thurmond does not bring up loving memories for me, as a descendant of slaves taken to South Carolina in shackles.

My maternal great-great grandmother, Leah Ruth, was kidnapped from Guinea (when she was twelve), and sold into slavery in South Carolina. She became the property of Robert Ruth, who had several children by her. When Ruth got angry at her, he sold her children--his children--and then sold her, separating the family he had helped create. The other indignity she suffered was at the hands of the overseer, whom she described as Mr. Fields. She was whipped daily when heading into the cotton fields. This was the life Great Great Grandmother Leah lived from the age of twelve to fifty-seven.

After the Civil War her son, Samuel Ruth, settled in Coatsville, a haven for blacks escaping from the segregated South. At one point he took a trip to South Carolina to find his mother. She was still living in near slavery conditions on Hogg Island. He took her to Coatesville and built her a home on his land. She would sit on her front porch and talk about the treatment she received during slavery. Her son was my great grandfather.

Leah lived to be ninety-seven years old, sitting on her porch, talking about her childhood in Guinea, before the slavers took her. Yes, she had bad memories, but she also had the last laugh.

Coatesville was a haven for my paternal grandparents in 1920's Pennsylvania as they escaped the tenant farm system. My Grandfather Baxter was a tenant farmer in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and each year he went deeper, and deeper in debt. He was not able to move North because he owed the landowner money. Finally, in order to get away he had to run off like a slave after leaving his family in another town. My father was four years old when he left South Carolina. The goodbyes they said on the last day had to suffice because there was to be no return.

My mother was two years older than Essie Mae Washington and lived on the same street. She could not have known Essie Mae's identity or she certainly would have revealed it. She often told us about the children in the community who had white Southern fathers. Many of them were sent North by churches. There was a fear that these children would be harrassed, or worse yet murdered, if they remained in the South.

When Essie Mae Washington was born, my family had been out of South Carolina for five years. Stom Thurmond was just getting started in continuing the racist policies started by his forefathers. My question is how many people suffered needlessly to allow Strom Thurmond's career to blossom? I understand that people need careers, but he sat with Klansmen and white supremacists all over the South. How many times did he look away when blacks were lynched?
How many times did he allow innocent blacks to be sentenced to death?

I would be more understanding if he had done a complete about face, and admitted he had a mixed raced child. He did not, which says more about him than any money he could put in his child's hand. Time does not go backwards, but it would have been more healing for me to see Essie Mae Washington reveal her secret while Strom Thurmond was alive.

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More Comments:

marquita montgomery - 9/4/2004

He was a racist, and a hypocritic, loser, mean hearted person!!

end of story!!!!!!!!!!!!

Kay of Vancouver - 1/3/2004

Dear Ms. Wills:

I really enjoyed your comments about the town where Essie Mae Washington grew up. I suspect that Strom Thurman caused Carrie Butler serious suffering. I wish more had been written about her experience.

Kay of Vancouver

David - 12/28/2003

An illegitimate child of ANY race would have been an embarrasment to Strom Thurmond.

Dottie - 12/28/2003

I agree with you Essie Mae Washington-Williams should have announced her lineage before Thurman's death. It would have been interesting to find out if it's true that the dying don't lie. But we're struggling with our genealogy because of the terrible fear older people have when acknowledging their past history. However, I believe that the truth will set us all psychologically free.

john horse - 12/27/2003

According to Wills "it would have been more healing for me to see Essie Mae Washington reveal her secret while Strom Thurmond was alive." I believe that it would have been much more healing for Thurmond to acknowledge his daughter while he was alive. I doubt Thurmond would have been lynched if he did. My guess is that he did not because it would have been the end of his political career and would have been "scandalous" for his family. That he was unable to do so will be a stain on Thurmond's reputation. It also says something about the Southern society and the persistence of racism.

Dutch - 12/23/2003

I havent had a chance to pick up your book, but will do so...Thanks for the information,

Anita Wills - 12/22/2003

I wonder what would have happened to Strom Thurmond if he had publicly acknowledged his biracial daughter. He probably would have been lynched by some of those good old boys.

My brother, and his wife just relocated to South Carolina, and things are changing. I am told that some of our family, are well educated, and very prosperous. They have attended Ivy League Schools (thanks largely to the Civil Rights movement), and returned to South Carolina. A good number of folks from the north are retiring there as well. There is also a large military population from all over the country.

Maybe South Carolina needed a Strom Thurmond to accomplish this change.

Nemo - 12/22/2003

Ms. Wills writes of Thurmond:

"I understand that people need careers, but he sat with Klansmen and white supremacists all over the South. How many times did he look away when blacks were lynched?"

I make no brief for the likes of Thurmond, but I was surprised to read the following story about him in his NY TIMES obituary (this is from memory): When Thurmond was governor of South Carolina a black man accused of sexually assualting a white woman was dragged from jail and lynched by a mob. Thurmond brought in a special prosecutor and told him to go all out to get convictions of members of the mob. The prosecutor did as he was bidden, but the all white jury refused to convict. Nonetheless, the fact that a serious attempt had been made to convict the perpetrators served as a deterrent and there were no lynchings (at least no blatent public lynchings) in SC after that date.

Jim Halsema - 12/22/2003

We live near Coatesville. I use its YMCA and work out with both blacks and whites. This is a good portrait of the community.