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Dec 27, 2003 6:43 am


SEPARATED AT BIRTH ...



The last time we were in Edgefield, South Carolina, a stranger rushed up to my wife on the street and said:"Why, Miss T, it's so good to see you out today." We hadn't the slightest idea who"Miss T" was and assured the stranger that my wife was not her. The embarrassed stranger told us that"Miss T" was Strom Thurmond's niece, Mary T. Thompkins Freeman, and it was simply a case of mistaken identity. Just between you and me, I prefer it when my wife is mistaken either for Carol Burnett or Barbara Streisand, as she commonly is.

But, finally, we know why almost any stranger on the streets in Edgefield might be mistaken for one of Strom Thurmond's relatives. There are simply a whole lot more of them than the family ever acknowledged. About 30 years ago, I first heard the rumor that he had a daughter of color and had little reason to doubt it. I didn't comment on Essie Mae Washington-Williams's belated acknowledgment that she is the daughter of ol' Strom Thurmond, but this widely reprinted piece in the New York Times about the reactions of the old man's white relatives summons me.

According to"Miss T," my wife's look-alike, Ms. Washington-Williams's announcement was"was like a blight on the family."

"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."
Ms. Freeman also said that had the secret daughter been white,"it would be a whole other situation," because public criticism would not have been as harsh.
"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."
Really, my dear, both you and I have known about this for years. Years of knowing it -- years of Strom's winking and nudging you in the ribs with his elbow -- should have prepared you with something more gracious than this. What astonished me then and astonishes me now is, by contrast, the quiet dignity of Strom Thurmond's oldest daughter. She had deferred to her father's public career for nearly 80 years. Only after his death did she tell their secret. Whether the other Thurmond relatives acknowledge her or not is a matter of some indifference to Ms. Washington-Williams. She knows that she was there first.

Recommended Reading: the interesting discussions of this story, hosted by Kieran Healey and John Quiggin at Crooked Timber, the thoughtful editorial column by Cynthia Tucker in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and this fascinating story of detective work in the Washington Post.


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