An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

The Scarred Stone: The Strom Thurmond Monument

Joseph Crespino, Emory University

Published: 
29 April 2010
Overview: 

Joseph Crespino analyzes the addition of Strom Thurmond's African American daughter's name to his South Carolina State House statue.

In 2003, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a retired African American schoolteacher from Los Angeles, held a press conference in which she announced that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the longtime US Senator from South Carolina and an icon of racist, reactionary politics in civil rights era America. Thurmond emerged on the national scene in 1948 when he ran as the third-party presidential candidate of the States Rights Democratic Party, a political organization founded to oppose civil rights legislation introduced by President Harry Truman. In 1954 he was elected on a write-in campaign to the US Senate, a feat unmatched before or since. In the 1950s, Thurmond spearheaded some of the most high profile acts of white resistance to the modern civil rights movement. He was the initial author of the 1956 Southern Manifesto, a denunciation of the Supreme Court's ruling two years earlier that desegregated southern public schools. He also led a historic one-man filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Thurmond's speech ran more than twenty-four hours, which still stands as the longest single speech in Senate history.

Despite Thurmond's racist politics, Washington-Williams was remarkably protective of her father, both during his lifetime and after his death, and Thurmond's "white" family did not dispute her claim to the family's lineage. In 2004 a monument to Thurmond on the state capitol grounds of South Carolina was altered to include Washington-Williams' name among the list of Thurmond's other children.

Ranee Saunders, Panel after alteration with five children named, Columbia, South Carolina, 2010.

Dedicated in 1999, the day before Thurmond's ninety-seventh birthday, the Thurmond memorial is a nine-foot tall bronze likeness depicting the senator in mid-stride that rests on an eight-foot high marble base, the west side of which lists the names of Thurmond's children. There was no room at the beginning of the list to add "Essie Mae" in her pride of place as the oldest, so her name was inscribed at the bottom, in a typeface that roughly matches that used on the rest of the monument.

The decision to alter the monument came not from family members, but from the South Carolina General Assembly. State Senator Robert Ford, an African American representative from Charleston County and former staff member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, first introduced the bill to add Washington-Williams' name.1 His proposal came in the aftermath of a long and tortured battle over race and public space in South Carolina. African Americans had long complained about the state's practice of flying a Confederate flag over the Capitol dome, a tradition that began in 1962 as a show of defiance against the civil rights movement and federal desegregation efforts. The controversy reached a boiling point in 1996 when Republican governor David Beasley, who had supported the practice during his campaign, consented to a plan to remove the flag.2 Beasley's stand brought counter-protests by flag defenders, which in turn sparked a boycott of the state by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A compromise was finally reached in 2000 in which the flag was removed and a smaller Confederate banner was placed alongside the Confederate memorial on the Capitol grounds.3 In addition, the state constructed a monument to African American achievements on the east side of the Capitol building.

In May 2005 Washington-Williams traveled to Columbia to see her father's memorial. State Senator John Courson, a longtime Thurmond confidant and chair of the monument commission, escorted her around the capitol, recounting humorous stories of her father's legendary stamina on the campaign trail. Williams also saw the African American History Monument on the statehouse grounds; an article covering the event noted that Senator Thurmond was one of the first donors for the construction of the African American memorial, pledging $500. "He was always very helpful to all of us," Williams told reporters. "He's the one that was responsible for my son being a doctor."4

Ranee Saunders, African American Memorial, Columbia, South Carolina, 2010.

The altered monument, along with the warm reception that Williams received in South Carolina from Thurmond's family and associates, offered ostensible symbols of changing race relations in South Carolina. Robert Ford believed that the alteration of the monument "will go a long way in terms of race relations in the state."5 One headline writer captured the triumphant tone: "South Rewrites History in Stone."6

The Loyal Slave Myth and Southern Memorialization:
One of the reasons that Thurmond's white family and a longtime loyalist like John Courson could embrace Essie Mae Washington-Williams was because she was so carefully protective of her father's legacy and reputation. Her public statements betrayed no trace of resentment or misgiving. She was the picture of the loyal and loving daughter. Robert Ford may have wanted Washington-Williams' name on the monument as an affirmation of African American identity on the capitol grounds, yet Thurmond's family and friends could consent to it because they respected the devotion that Washington-Williams had shown Thurmond.
Mammy figure engraved on Faithful Slave Monument, Fort Mill, South Carolina. From Kimberly Wallace-Sanders essay "Southern Memory, Southern Monuments, and the Subversive Black Mammy".
Mammy figure engraved on Faithful Slave Monument, Fort Mill, South Carolina. From Kimberly Wallace-Sanders essay "Southern Memory, Southern Monuments, and the Subversive Black Mammy".

Yet, there is a long and complicated tradition in the American South of honoring African Americans for their faithfulness to powerful whites. It is a tradition against which Essie Mae Washington-Williams' story must be read. In the decades following emancipation, particularly as a new generation of southern blacks came of age who had no living memory of slavery, it became common for whites across the South to celebrate and memorialize the faithful slave. Whether it was "mammy," the gentle, asexual elderly black female figure who tended the masters children as though they were her own, or "old darkey," the black male who was the manly figure of protection for white women and children when the head of the plantation was off fighting in the Civil War, these stereotypical figures became part of the mythology of the Lost Cause. White women's groups, usually chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), started campaigns in various parts of the South to construct "mammy" monuments. The effort culminated in the early 1920s when the UDC lobbied southern congressmen to introduce a bill for the establishment of a mammy monument on national public grounds in Washington, DC (though introduced, it was never passed).7

In the twentieth century, as the historian Micki McElya writes, the myth of the faithful slave has lingered because "so many white Americans have wished to live in a world in which African Americans are not angry over past and present injustices, a world in which white people were and are not complicit, in which the injustices themselves — of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism — seem not to exist at all."8 The myth of the loyal slave has always implied a shared sympathy across the color line, one born of mutual affection and a shared Christian heritage.

It was a mythology Thurmond himself invoked at different points in his political career. As late as 1970, Thurmond defended southern segregation as a humane and realistic way of organizing a multiracial society, one that recognized cultural differences and racial preferences. "Within both groups there have always been sublayers and subtle relationships that reached back into family traditions and established places of residence," Thurmond wrote — or to be more precise, a staff member wrote; Thurmond rarely if ever drafted material himself though he proof-read all text that went out under his name. He contrasted the racial order of the South with that of the "great industrial cities of the North" where residents were "isolated social units, lacking family ties and traditions." In the South, however, "individualism is supported by a natural interrelation and interdependence." Thurmond argued that the civil rights movement and efforts towards school integration upset the social equilibrium that had been worked out over decades. Advocates of integration were "a wedge splitting society asunder."9

This vision of the South as an organic society juxtaposed with the impersonal rootless social order of the urban North was part of a sectional mythology that stretched back to the early decades of the nineteenth century, when southern apologists first defended slavery from the attacks of a burgeoning northern abolitionist movement. At the heart of the mythology was this image of the loyal slave, of meaningful relationships across the color line, the "natural interrelation and interdependence" of blacks and whites in the South. In the massive resistance era, segregationist politicians complained about northern bias against the South that ignored the close relationships that existed across the color line. It made them easy targets for lampooning when juxtaposed with images of white racist violence, but it was this traditional projection of the South as an organic, interdependent society that they attempted to invoke.

It is interesting to consider the circumstances under which the Thurmond staffer penned the passage about "subtle relationships that reached back into family traditions." When this person conjured such a line, perhaps he was imagining Thurmond's "friendship" with Essie Mae Washington Williams, who made annual visits to Thurmond's office to pick up money from the senator.10 She was always described to staffers as an old family friend from Edgefield — and thus, an exemplar of the "sublayers and subtle relationships" that were thought to exist between whites and blacks in the South. To his ghostwriter, Thurmond's regular visits with this "family friend" undoubtedly seemed like the embodiment of this tradition. The myth of the loyal slave — and the cross-racial sympathy it implied — obscured the fact that the "family tradition" that Thurmond participated in was that of fathering children with African American servants. African American service workers on Capitol Hill, however, were less likely to believe the mythology than Thurmond's white staffers. Among the exclusively African American chauffeurs who drove the senators — one of whom annually picked up Washington-Williams at the airport to deliver her to Thurmond's office — it was assumed that she was in fact Thurmond's daughter.11

Re-Written in Stone:
The real challenge for the workmen assigned the task of editing the words written into the Thurmond monument was how to alter the heading "father of four" to "father of five." The larger width of the original letters — particularly the middle combination of "ou" compared to "iv"—meant that the entire word "four" had to be filled in with epoxy and then re-inscribed as "five." The cumulative work discolored the stately gray marble into an almost copperish-red that dulls in the early morning and late afternoon light but is clearly visible from dozens of yards away in the noonday sun.
Ranee Saunders, Detailed image of altered text on Thurmond statue, Columbia, South Carolina, 2010.
Ranee Saunders, Detailed image of altered text on Thurmond statue, Columbia, South Carolina, 2010.
Ranee Saunders, Detailed image of altered text on Thurmond statue, Columbia, South Carolina, 2010.

Seeing the monument in the light of Essie Mae Washington-William's revelation and inclusion, the memorial is a remarkable symbol of transformation. What is not seen from that angle, however, is that the stone bears what is, in effect, a scar, the significance of which depends on whose gaze the scar holds. It could symbolize physical or emotional pain that has been overcome. This, it would seem, is the meaning for Essie Mae Washington Williams herself, and perhaps too for some portion of African Americans who view this altered monument, along with other forms of African American inclusion in the broader civic culture, as the culmination of generations of struggle against a dominant white society. It is not hard to recall a time in United States history when it would have been impossible for an African American woman to make a successful claim against the family of a powerful and privileged white man. Essie Mae Washington Williams did just this. It is distinguished from previous forms of white memorialization of African Americans in the fact that it acknowledges Essie Mae not in abstract idealized terms of loyalty or devotion but in her simple condition: daughter.

A scar can also be a mark of shame or weakness. In this sense it is a reminder of Thurmond's own moral failings, both in his public and private life. His racially divisive speeches along with other high profile acts of resistance to African Americans' struggle for full democratic citizenship marred Thurmond's career in his own day, just as the scar blemishes the most significant lasting physical manifestation of his life and legacy.

Yet in all times and places a scar connotes violence. It is as a marker of both the literal and figurative violence that white Americans have carried out against fellow Americans of African descent that Strom Thurmond's scarred stone seems most profoundly suggestive. For roughly two-thirds of Strom Thurmond's life, the wounds of racial injustice, social segregation and white supremacy remained open sores. By the last third of his life, the concerted efforts of civil rights activists had spurred interventions by an array of Americans — black and white, public officials and private citizens — that represented, at least in part, a healing of some of those wounds. Whatever quiet actions or attitudes Thurmond took in his private life that earned him the devotion of his eldest daughter, in his public life Thurmond stood askance of such efforts. He belittled them and denied their necessity.

And so today on the capitol grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, the figure of Strom Thurmond strides confidently forward. Yet as it was when he walked the earth it is now and will remain: he stands on a surface scarred by the legacies of white supremacy. Scars caused from afflictions that he himself exacerbated in his own time. Scars that remain with us still.

About the Author:
Notes:

2. Atlanta Journal and Constitution, November 27, 1996.

3. New York Times, May 19, 2000.

4. Associated Press, May 20, 2005.

5. Charleston Post and Courier, January 15, 2004.

6. Christian Science Monitor, January 29, 2008.

7. Micki McElya, Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 116-59. Also see Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).

8. McElya, Clinging to Mammy, 3.

9. Strom Thurmond, "What the South Wants, II," July 29, 1970, folder 204, box 16, Speeches Series, Original Subseries B, Strom Thurmond Papers, Clemson University.

10. Washington Post, Dec. 23, 2003; Joseph Crespino interview with Horace Fleming, Aug. 30, 2008 (in author's possession).

11. Bertie Bowman, Step By Step: A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance, and Living the American Dream (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008), 146.

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