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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Thurmond Daughter Speaks to Press

Aired December 17, 2003 - 11:31   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: The daughter of the late Senator Strom Thurmond is actually walking into the room right now in Columbia, South Carolina, receiving a standing ovation.
That is 78-year-old Essie Mae Washington-Williams. She is the daughter of the late Senator Strom Thurmond. He died last year at the age of 100, went to his grave without publicly acknowledging that this indeed was his daughter.

He had a relationship with the family maid back when he was 22 years old. Essie Mae Washington-Williams' mother was only 16 at the time. They had contact throughout her life, and yet she also chose to keep the secret of her paternity saying that she didn't want to hurt her father's career.

She is she has now chosen to speak out. Let's listen in. This is Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter of Strom Thurmond.

ESSIE MAE WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS, STROM THURMOND'S DAUGHTER: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Essie Mae Washington- Williams. My mother, who is now deceased, was named Carrie Butler. And she worked for the Thurmond family. I was born in Aiken, South Carolina, on October the 12th, 1925. My father's name was James Strom Thurmond.

About six months after I was born, my Aunt Essie, after whom I was named, took me to Pennsylvania. When her sister, Mary Washington came to Pennsylvania, she took me with her to Coatesville, a small town near Philadelphia. She and her husband, John Washington, adopted me. They were very good parents to me. And for that, I will be eternally grateful.

I attended the public schools in Coatesville until I graduated from Scott High School. Following my graduation from high school, I enrolled at South Carolina State College upon the recommendation of my father. There I majored in business education.

After my second year in college, I met and later married my husband Julius Williams. He was in his second year in the newly opened South Carolina State College Law School. He was one of the first graduates from the law school.

My husband and I were blessed with four wonderful children, all of whom are tremendously successful. I have 13 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. Their lives are meaningful and important in American history. There are many stories, like Sally Hemmings and mine. The unfortunate measure is that not everyone knows about these stories that help to make America what it is today.

When my father became a United States senator, his communication and support continued to me. I visited him many times in Washington D.C. All of those on his staff knew exactly who I was. His financial support was constant during various phases of my life. I knew him beyond his public image.

I am sure that the question looming here today is why have I waited to come forth? my response is throughout his life and mine we respected each other. I never wanted to do anything to harm him or cause detriment to his life or to lives of those around him.

My father did a lot of things to help other people, even though his public stance appeared opposite. Ask the honorable Matthew Perry or the young Armstrong Williams. Ask many of those persons of color about the real Strom Thurmond.

I was sensitive about his well-being and career and his family here in South Carolina. It was only at the urging of my children and Senator Thurmond's passing that I decided that my children deserve the right to know from whom, where, and what they have come. I am committed in teaching them and helping them to learn about their past. It is their right to know, and I understand the rich history of their ancestry, black and white.

At this juncture in my life, I am looking for closure. I am not biter. I am not angry. In fact, there's a great sense of peace that has come over me in the past year. 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 least, I feel completely free.

(APPLAUSE)

WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: I want to thank all of you for being present here today. May God bless each and every one of you. Thank you.

KAGAN: Well, that was an incredible statement from an incredible woman. Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter of Strom Thurmond. She told her story of how she was born to Carrie Butler, a maid in the Thurmond household and to Strom Thurmond. She went on to have a life as a teacher, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother.

And she talked about her father and talked about why -- how they stayed in touch and how she knew him over the years, how people in the senator's office, she says, knew exactly how she was, how she received both financial and personal support throughout the years. And yet kept the secret, the private secret of who her father was.

And she explained that and why she waited until today, saying that they respected each other. And she also respected that her father privately was doing a lot to help a lot of people.

But she said by now she has decided that it's time that her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren deserve the right to know from whom and where and what they come. She ended it by saying she is not biter. She is not angry. She is at peace. Essie Mae Washington-Williams.

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