For a great many Americans, the late Strom Thurmond will forever be remembered as the thin, nasal voice of racism, militarism and regional insularity. In 1948, this well-born South Carolinian bolted the Democratic Party because of its advocacy of civil rights for blacks and ran for president on the States' Rights (Dixiecrat) ticket. Ultimately, he joined the Republicans and went on to become one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate. Thurmond retired from the Senate in 2003 at the age of 100 and died a few months later. Although he gradually moderated his early views on race, he never explicitly renounced them. But ol' Strom, as he came to be known, did have a festive side: He loved young ladies and in this he was colorblind, as evidenced by the author of the strangely engaging autobiography Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond.

In 1925, when he was 23 and just out of college, Thurmond seduced and impregnated 15-year-old Carrie Butler, one of his family's black housekeepers. After their child, Essie Mae, was born, Carrie entrusted her care to her older sister, Mary. Essie Mae and her family moved to Coatsville, Pennsylvania, when she was still a baby. She was 13 before she saw her birth mother again. On their first trip together back to South Carolina, Carrie walked her daughter to Thurmond's law office and, to the child's utter bafflement said, Essie Mae, meet your father. Washington-Williams' emotionally conflicted story spins out from this point.

Father and daughter would meet discreetly for the rest of Thurmond's life, sometimes even in his Senate office where his staff assumed she was a constituent. He was, she says, consistently courteous and generous giving her money with each visit and paying for her college but he never embraced her as a daughter. There is a constant tug in her mind between the genteel, always welcoming gentleman she sees behind closed doors and the demagogue she reads about. Washington-Williams withheld her link to Thurmond from her children for years and resisted her family's urging to go public as a way of undermining Thurmond's racist ravings.

Just as fascinating as the author's account of coming to terms with her father are the parallel recollections of what the country was like for well-educated, upwardly mobile blacks at the height of the civil rights struggle. In the end, and without conspicuously sentimentalizing her memories, Washington-Williams displays the compassion and evenhandedness any father even an absentee one would be proud of. Ed Morris writes from Nashville.

 

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