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Essie Mae


It is not news that Strom Thurmond had a relationship with a black woman many years ago. He acknowledged as much, but he denied that he fathered a child with her. Colbert King talks about Thurmond’s alleged daughter in his column today. I can hear Yankee rationalists saying, “But I don’t get it: how can a man fight for segregation, yet have an affair with a woman he believes is his inferior?” Welcome to the South, folks (which is to say, to the tragic carnival that is humanity). Let Flannery O’Connor be your guide, but never forget that she’s a realist.

You want to know how crazy it is? Where I’m from, there was a white plantation owner within living memory who used to spend Christmas mornings with his white family in the big house, then spend Christmas afternoons with his black mistress and their family in their cabin on the back end of the property. This was no secret. There is a long and sordid history of elite Southern men breaking their marriage vows by taking black mistresses (who weren’t always consulted about whether they wanted to be anybody’s mistress).

My great-grandmother told me a few years ago, the bitterness still palpable in her voice, of the resentment she had towards the white female social elite in our town back in the 1930s, when she and my great-grandfather moved there. Because of the Depression, she had to go to work, which “respectable” women just didn’t do in those days. The other women snubbed her because of it. What got to her, though, was that these women’s husbands — the town’s ruling class — were spending their days in the Negro quarter under the hill, with their mistresses. My great-grandmother said the elite ladies of the town had to overlook the fact that their husbands were cheating on them with the maids (who, in the white man’s mind, weren’t really persons, so it wasn’t really adultery), else the whole pretense of their elevated place in society would collapse. The greater their secret shame, the more they looked down on women like my great-grandmother, particularly because she knew, and more to the point, they knew that she knew.

Slavery and its legacy corrupted individuals and families and communities, black and white, for generations, and in ways people don’t always think about today.


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