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Breaking nearly eight decades of silence, Essie Mae Washington–Williams comes forward with a story of unique historical magnitude and incredible human drama. Her father, the late Strom Thurmond, was once the nation's leading voice for racial segregation (one of his signature political achievements was his 24–hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, done in the name of saving the South from "mongrelization"). Her mother, however, was a black teenager named Carrie Butler who worked as a maid on the Thurmond family's South Carolina plantation.
Set against the explosively changing times of the civil rights movement, this poignant memoir recalls how she struggled with the discrepancy between the father she knew–one who was financially generous, supportive of her education, even affectionate–and the Old Southern politician, railing against greater racial equality, who refused to acknowledge her publicly. From her richly told narrative, as well as the letters she and Thurmond wrote to each other over the years, emerges a nuanced, fascinating portrait of a father who counseled his daughter about her dreams and goals, and supported her in reaching them–but who was unwilling to break with the values of his Dixiecrat constituents.
With elegance, dignity, and candor, Washington–Williams gives us a chapter of American history as it has never been written before–told in a voice that will be heard and cherished by future generations.
234 pages; ISBN 9780061583698
Summer of '38
I always thought I had a fairly normal childhood, until I found out my parents weren't who I thought they were. I grew up in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a small town in the hills along the Brandywine River on the threshold of the rich farmland of the Amish country. We were only forty miles from Philadelphia, and the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad ran through our town. And yet Philadelphia might as well have been the moon. That was the Big City. Coatesville was nowhere, but for a little girl it was everywhere -- it was all I had and all I knew. Coatesville was what was considered a one-horse town, but that horse was a very powerful steed called steel. The Lukens Steel Company dominated everything about our town. Its dozens of soaring smokestacks dominated the skyline. They were our own skyscrapers. Even the smoke belching from those enormous stacks was a point of pride, not pollution. That pungent, thick, black soot meant the mills were working full blast, that the little town was booming. It was the smell of money.
Like most men in Coatesville, my father, John Henry Washington, worked for the steel mills. Bethlehem Steel and Worth Brothers Steel had huge plants in Coatesville, but the colossus was Lukens Steel. Like an industrial octopus, Lukens had devoured its rivals and made them its own. The matriarch of the business was a legendary local character named Rebecca Lukens, known as "The Woman of Steel." She was an independent woman, far ahead of her time, a Pennsylvania version of a steel magnolia. Rebecca was the driving force behind the expansion of her family 's Brandywine Iron Works into an international powerhouse. She was one of the first women in America to run a major company, and her daughter married a man named Huston. When I was growing up, the Hustons were Coatesville's first family. They lived in a grand manor house called Terracina and were to Coatesville what the Kennedys or the Rockefellers are to America. Despite the small size of the town (15,000 people), I never met a Huston, and, by the same token, I never aspired to become a woman of steel. American women today have those sort of huge "have it all" ambitions, but growing up black during the Great Depression, I was perfectly happy to dream about becoming a nurse. That was a pretty big deal at the time, and I was more ambitious than most.
My mother, or at least the woman who I thought was my mother, kept house, while daddy worked on the assembly line. Mother had worked as a picker in the cotton fields of South Carolina and said that was enough hard labor for two lifetimes. I had a half-brother, Calvin Burton, who was my mother's son by a previous relationship, which I later learned was not an actual marriage. Calvin was seven years older than I, and by the time I was thirteen, in 1938, he had left home to live in New York City. I had fantasies of following him there, to become a nurse in a big city hospital, but these were only fantasies. At thirteen, I still hadn't gotten to Philadelphia.
We lived in a small, two-story, three-bedroom row house in a neighborhood called The Spruces, named after the tree, which was populated by other black steelworkers. Most of them, like my family, hailed from the South. I had my own room, which seemed like a castle to me. The house was heated with coal stoves, and ther e was no r unning water or any bathr ooms. We had to use an outhouse in the back and take tub baths in the bedroom using water we'd carry from an outside pump. It sounds primitive, but it seemed normal then, although the winters were awfully cold, and the day of the week the big sanitation trucks would come to clean the outhouses was the smelliest day you could imagine. We'd all try to stay away from home on that day. I remember visiting the home of a white girlfriend. The house wasn't any nicer than ours, but it did have an indoor toilet. It seemed like the ultimate in high technology at the time.
I'll never forget the wonderful dinners we'd have: fried chicken, biscuits, lots of fresh vegetables, and the sweetest pies made with local peaches, strawberries, apples, and plums. Every night was like Thanksgiving. My mother, who was tall and slim and a great cook, always wore a kerchief around her head. That seemed old-fashioned at the time, as did her habit of chewing tobacco and expelling it into a spittoon. I gathered that it was an old southern custom she'd brought with her. I didn't question her about it. In fact, I didn't tend to question things at all. My parents were of the "children should be seen and not heard" school. As a little girl I started out quite chatty, but one day my mother warned me "that mouth of yours can get you into trouble," after which I learned to keep it shut.
We never talked much at those fine dinners, partly because we were all listening to the radio all through the meal. That was our ear to the world. Despite all the bad news that seemed to be coming through the airwaves -- the seemingly endless Depression, the rise of the Nazis in Europe, disasters like the Hindenburg airship explosion -- the feeling around the table was very positive. My father, a handsome man who always came to the table after a hard, dusty day at the mills immaculate and smelling deliciously of soap and cologne, always said a blessing of thanks, for the food, for his job, for his wonderful family, and for funny or odd things, like Shirley Temple, or Charlie Chan, or Heinz ketchup ...