COLUMBIA, S.C. – The 78-year-old daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (search) and a black maid said Wednesday that now that she has come forward to disclose her heritage, "at last I feel completely free."
"There are many stories like Sally Hemings' and mine," said Essie Mae Washington-Williams (search), referring to Thomas Jefferson's relationship with one of his black slaves.
"The unfortunate measure is that not everyone knows about these stories that helped to make America what it is today," Williams said.
Williams announced last weekend she is the illegitimate daughter of Thurmond, a former segregationist, and a black teenage maid in his family home, Carrie Butler.
Thurmond was 22 and Butler was 16 when Williams was born in Aiken, S.C., in 1925. She was raised in Pennsylvania by an aunt and uncle, seeing her mother sporadically and not meeting Thurmond until she was 16.
After Thurmond died in June at age 100, Williams said she began to think about ending "all the speculation and questions" about the long-rumored relationship. She said she did not come forward earlier because she didn't want to jeopardize Thurmond's political career.
"I am not bitter. I am not angry," she said during a news conference just blocks the Statehouse where a monument of Thurmond sits. "In fact, there is a great sense of peace that has come over me in the past year.
"I feel as though a great weight has been lifted. I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I feel completely free."
Williams said her mother didn't tell her much about Thurmond and the relationship the two had. During an interview set to air on "60 Minutes II" on Wednesday night, Williams called it an "affair" and said her mother remembered Thurmond as "very nice person."
Thurmond's family said Monday they acknowledge Williams' claim, and the former senator's oldest son, U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr., said he would like to meet his half-sister and start a relationship.
"The extended Thurmond family wants to arrange a meeting with Ms. Williams and her children as soon as practicable in a quiet setting," the relatives said in a statement through their lawyer Wednesday.
Williams, a retired teacher living in Los Angeles, said she would like to meet Thurmond's other children.
The nation's oldest and longest-serving senator first met Williams in his Edgefield office when she was 16.
"Well, you look like one of my sisters," Williams recalled Thurmond saying. "You've got those cheekbones like our family."'
One of Williams' four children, a doctor in Washington state, said he and his siblings knew since childhood that Thurmond was their grandfather and he regretted they weren't closer to him.
"We didn't know the significance of it until we got older but, like my mother, we didn't make a big deal of it because of the embarrassment," Dr. Ronald Williams, 53, told The Chronicle of Centralia (Wash.).
When Ronald Williams applied for medical school in 1976, Thurmond wrote him a letter of recommendation. He met the senator once as a child and in 1981 in Washington, when Thurmond "congratulated me on my successes," Ronald Williams said.
Walter Thurmond Bishop, Thurmond's nephew and the chief federal bankruptcy court judge for South Carolina, told The Washington Post he served as a "pass-through" for payments sent by cashier's check to Williams. He said he began sending money and warm letters to Williams in the late 1960s and continued until recent years.
In seven decades of politics, the former governor and Republican senator gained fame and infamy as an arch-segregationist, but he later came to support a holiday for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King (search).
"I certainly never did like the idea that he was a segregationist, but there was nothing I could do about it," Williams said. "That was his life."