COLUMBIA, S.C. – Strom Thurmond Jr. says he is ready to meet his mixed-race half sister, whose relationship to the family was kept secret by his father for nearly eight decades.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams (search), a 78-year-old retiree living in Los Angeles, says former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond Sr. (search), a onetime segregationist, fathered her when he was 22 and living in his parents' home in Edgefield. Her mother, Carrie Butler, 16 at the time, worked as a maid in the Thurmonds' home.
"We have no reason to believe Ms. Williams was not telling the truth," Strom Thurmond Jr., the U.S. attorney for South Carolina, told The (Columbia) State for a story in Tuesday's editions. "Everyone has a right to know their heritage."
Thurmond Jr. said he was looking forward to meeting the retired schoolteacher and establishing a relationship, but plans to do that in private.
"As far as emotions or how I feel, I feel good, because that's a feeling you get from doing the right thing," Thurmond Jr. said.
Williams had long been rumored to be Thurmond's child, though she previously denied it. She has come forward now at the urging of her children, said Frank K. Wheaton, Williams' attorney in California.
"She waited until after his passing because she had such a profound love and respect for her father and so did he for her. ... They both shared a mutual respect that raised the bar of integrity, as we generally know it," Wheaton said Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
He said Williams was not seeking money and did not want to challenge Thurmond's will. Thurmond died in June at age 100.
"This case was never about money, much to the surprise of many. Essie Mae Washington-Williams merely wanted validation, acknowledgment, so that she could bring finality and closure to her life. She wanted this for her children and their children and their children," Wheaton said.
The family doesn't know much about Williams, Thurmond Jr. said.
"I had a conversation with my dad about it about 10 years ago. I asked about this, and he didn't tell me whether she was or whether she wasn't (his daughter)," he said. "I did not ask again."
Thurmond Jr. and other family members didn't return several phone calls from The Associated Press.
On Monday, Thurmond's family released a statement acknowledging Williams' claims.
"As J. Strom Thurmond has passed away and cannot speak for himself, the Thurmond family acknowledges Ms. Essie Mae Washington-Williams' claim to her heritage. We hope this acknowledgment will bring closure for Ms. Williams," the family's lawyer, J. Mark Taylor, said.
Williams said Thurmond privately acknowledged her as his daughter and had provided financial support since 1941. She said she waited to go public because she didn't want to embarrass herself or hurt Thurmond's career. The Washington Post first reported her claims Saturday.
"There was an agreement between the parties that she would never discuss the fact that Senator Thurmond was her father," said her South Carolina lawyer, Glenn Walters.
In seven decades of politics, Thurmond 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).
Williams, who was raised by an aunt, told the Post she first met Thurmond around 1941, when she was 16, and Thurmond called her a "very lovely daughter."
She told the newspaper she received money at least once a year in sessions arranged by Thurmond's Senate staff. Wheaton said the total over the years was "very substantial" but less than $1 million.
Williams was to discuss her story at a news conference Wednesday in Columbia, but one of her sons, Dr. Ronald Williams of Onalaska, Wash., told The State he will tell her it would be better to meet privately with the Thurmond family than talk to the media.