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Essie Mae Washington-Williams dead

Essie Mae Washington-Williams during a book signing in Washington. Washington-Williams, the daughter of one-time segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond who kept her parentage secret for more than 70 years to avoid damaging his political career, died Monday, Feb. 4, 2013. She was 87. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson, file)

Essie Mae Washington-Williams (pictured), who for 70 years harbored the secret that she was the Black daughter of the late longtime Senator Strom Thurmond, passed away at age 87 from an undisclosed cause, The Miami Herald reports.

Washington-Williams’ mother, Carrie Butler, was a domestic in Thurmond’s household. Butler and Thurmond maintained a two-decades long and forbidden romance that began when she was 15-years-old and he was 23 while she worked as a maid in his wealthy family home. Butler gave birth to Washington-Williams a year after their affair had begun. Thurmond was an unmarried attorney at the time.

Unable to care for her daughter, Butler sent Washington-Williams to her older sister, Mary, and her husband, John Henry Washington to raise her in Coatesville, Pa. It was not until Washington-Williams was 16 years of age that she learned of her true lineage. She met her dad soon after. Ironically, he was a staunch segregationist.

Throughout the ensuing years, Washington-Williams, Thurmond’s first-born child, maintained minimal contact with her father. In her 2005 autobiography, “Dear Senator: A Memoir By The Daughter of Strom Thurmond,” Washington-Williams maintains she saw her dad about 60 times in her life. She also said she loved her father and said he was good to both she and her mother, though they never shared a meal or even uttered the words “I love you” to each other. Washington-Williams claims in her book that when her mother passed away at the young age of 38 of renal failure, she says he didn’t cry but tears filled his eyes. She claims he also stated, “My God, what a terrible thing. I truly cared for that woman.”

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Washington-Williams claimed that her father gave her money throughout her life though her husband, Julius, a civil rights attorney who died in 1964 called the enveloped gifts, “hush money” and objected to her taking it.  Thurmond paid for her education, which resulted in Washington-Williams earning a degree in business from South Carolina State University and later a master’s in education from the University of Southern California. Washington-Williams taught English as a Second Language and was a guidance counselor for thirty years in the Los Angeles school system.

The secret Washington-Williams had been taught to conceal from the world was finally released after Thurmond died in 2003 at age 100. She was 78-years-old at the time.

Washington-Williams leaves behind two sons, two daughters and numerous grandchildren.