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Saturday, July 17, 2004

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial Observer: Strom Thurmond Continued: The Known World of Ms. Washington-Williams

Strom Thurmond Continued: The Known World of Ms. Washington-WilliamsBy BRENT STAPLES

If newspapers reach the afterlife, then Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina is having a fitful time in that great Senate chamber in the sky. Mr. Thurmond, who died last year at the age of 100, spent half of the 20th century fending off the rumor that he had fathered a child of Carrie Butler, a black maid who worked in his family's home during the 1920's. He had been dead less than a year when Ms. Butler's daughter, a retired teacher named Essie Mae Washington-Williams, came forward to claim him as her father, explaining that he had met secretly with her for decades while denying her existence in public.
As a young woman, Ms. Washington-Williams calculated that having a fraction of a father glimpsed in back rooms was preferable to having no father at all. But since his death, she has laid claim to the Thurmond legacy in a very public way, not least of all by having her name inscribed alongside the names of the senator's other children on the Thurmond memorial outside the South Carolina Statehouse. Along the way, she has consciously transformed her family's story into a penetrating lesson on the history of race in the early South.
White patriarchs who trafficked in racism by day and sired black children at night are an archetype in the history of the South, where white and black families have always been more closely related by blood than many whites cared to admit. The final public outing of Mr. Thurmond was viewed with amusement in black communities across the country.
But amusement turned to perplexity recently when Ms. Washington-Williams announced that she would embrace her white heritage by applying for membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a historically white group founded in the 19th century to memorialize Southern valor in the war to preserve slavery.
Ms. Washington-Williams said through her lawyer that she was not condoning slavery but was exploring her heritage in a way that she hoped would produce a richer dialogue about race. As a former teacher, she clearly recognizes the instructional value of her family's story. By showing that families who appear to be white at one time can appear to be black at another, she is underscoring the fact that race is a more elastic concept than most contemporary Americans understand.
She also wants to show that black Americans played roles in all aspects of the nation's history, including the Civil War. That war featured African-American participants on both sides, as did the slave trade, where blacks served not just as slaves but also as owners

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