Heidi Ardizzone is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of “Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White.”
When Essie May Washington-Williams recently announced that she is the daughter of Strom Thurmond and a black woman named Carrie Butler, she said: “There are many stories like Sally Hemmings’ and mine,” adding that she wanted more people to know about “these stories that helped to make America what it is today.”
Although an open secret in some circles, her connection to the segregationist politician was officially denied during his long life to protect his political career. Thurmond was 22 when he impregnated the teenage Butler, who worked in the Thurmond home as a domestic servant. It has been a shocking revelation for some and an all-too-familiar tale for others.
Racial mixing, the denial of racial mixing; it is a history, attorney Frank Wheaton suggested, that brings whites and blacks together into the “one nation” we aspire to be. What does this story tell us about who we are as a nation?
Certainly, that intimate relationships between Americans of different ancestries have existed even when laws and institutions were set to obstruct them. Also that the nature of those relationships too often has been characterized by the power whites have held over blacks in this country.
By the time Washington-Williams was born in 1925, the United States had developed numerous ways to try to control and “undo” several centuries of racial mixing. Segregation had developed as a legal system in the South and a social system throughout the country.
Underlying segregation was scientific racism, which claimed to be able to carve humanity into discrete categories. Blacks and whites were held to be so fundamentally different that they could not successfully assimilate culturally or biologically into a single political nation.
In 1925, marriage between blacks and whites was outlawed in 28 out of the 48 United States. Most of these laws also tried to define who was black and who was white. (South Carolina’s 1902 law prohibited whites from marrying “any mulatto, half-breed, Indian, negro, or mestizo.”)
Dividing Americans into only two social and political categories required that people of mixed ancestry identify as one or the other. Some states didn’t mind if lighter-skinned people of mixed ancestry choose whiteness; others, particularly in the South, worked hard to prevent that from happening.
The problem, however, was not just a Southern one.
Just a few weeks after Washington-Williams was born, the Rhinelander case, which had been making headlines across the country for a year, finally went to trial. The case involved the son of an elite white New York family who had married a working-class woman of mixed ancestry. His family persuaded him to leave her and sue for annulment, claiming he thought she was white.
DuBois discusses case
Because New York had never banned interracial marriages or tried to define blackness, the case was an opportunity for newspapers and the public to consider and debate these questions. Black leader W.E.B. DuBois weighed in, noting that “if Rhinelander had used this girl as a concubine or prostitute, white America would have raised no word of protest … when he legally and decently marries the girl … hell breaks loose and literally tears the pair apart.”
We do not know the exact nature of Butler and Thurmond’s relationship.
But it is Carrie Butler’s role as a maid in the Thurmond family home, more than as the mother of Strom Thurmond’s child, that reveals the nature of the race between slavery and civil rights. It was not really a separation of the races that segregation touted: separate public facilities, yes; inferior schools, absolutely. But separation?
Not when every white family that could afford it had a black woman cleaning, cooking and, most significantly, caring for their children. A black woman accompanying “her” white children as their maid could even cross the lines of segregation; the “mammy” figure was immortalized by whites on screens and pancake products throughout the 20th Century.
It was a far more fundamental form of enforced intimacy, the pretense of intimacy.
Segregation was not about separation as much as it was about control and domination. That some individuals, white and black, could rise above the pretense, discard the roles, and make true human connections—those are important stories, ones that may help us reach the ideals we hold so high.