To understand the great accomplishments of the singer Paul Robeson, it’s important to know the history.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, the segregationist South Carolina politician, viciously attacked Robeson in 1948. Thurmond charged that the popular performer “has been going all over the country demanding that we abolish segregation, and to show his contempt for our way of life in the South, he married his son off to a white girl.”
Robeson, one of the era’s most talented, articulate, and politically active public figures, had risked his life to tour small towns throughout the South in 1948 on behalf of the progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace. Thurmond, as that year’s presidential candidate of the segregationist Dixiecrat party, represented everything Robeson abhorred.
Robeson, however, was a black man that Thurmond couldn’t intimidate, and the eloquent intellectual knew how to get under the governor’s skin. Cheerfully singing his way through the deep South, Robeson attacked the Thurmond-led Dixiecrats as “powerful reactionaries who hope to stamp out the militant struggle of the Negro for complete freedom, equality and civil rights [and who] hope to keep all the wealth for themselves.”
Framing the “black belt of the South” as the area that would decide whether the Negro people “survive or perish,” Robeson spoke with a level of public candor then unheard of in South Carolina.
“For as long as any boy or girl can be denied opportunity in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi—so long as one can be lynched as he or she goes to vote—so long as the precious land does not belong to the people of that area (and with the land, the wealth that flows there from in agriculture and in industry)—so long as they do not have the full opportunity to develop and enrich their cultural heritage and their lives—so long are the whole Negro people not free.”
To the South’s white establishment, those were fighting words.
However, as one looks back on this dark chapter of history, it is fascinating to note that beginning in 1941, nine years before the senate campaign, Strom Thurmond began providing financial support to a daughter he had fathered with a black woman in 1925. The revelation that Thurmond had a daughter of mixed race came after his death at age 100 in June, 2003.
Thurmond’s daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, was born October 12, 1925 to a 16-year-old unmarried mother, Carrie Butler, who cleaned the Thurmond family home in Edgefield, South Carolina. At the time, Thurmond, 22, was living at the home while he worked as a school teacher and high school coach.
Thurmond first met his daughter around 1941, after he had been a state senator and circuit judge. From then on, the aspiring politician provided financial support for the woman, who remained a well-kept secret throughout his public career.
In retrospect, Thurmond’s family secret made his attack on Robeson and his son staggering in its sheer hypocrisy. But this cynical Southern politician was not about to lower the racial temperature.
This is one of the stories in Frank Beacham’s Kickstarter project, Wild History.
Wild History Kickstarter Project