Colbert I. King, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote recently about the acknowledgement by various institutions about their role in perpetuating slavery. Harvard University was the most recent example. King says that not enough attention has been paid to the sexual exploitation of slave women. As we reflect on the current Republican obsession with banning teaching about racism and accusing teachers of pedophilia, think of the following story. Who were the most dangerous pedophiles in American history?

King writes:

This soul-searching may well help the nation come to terms with its past. But an examination of racist cruelty in 18th and 19th-century America cannot stop with the failings of public and private institutions.

No probe into the corrosive effects of racial bondage can be complete without coming to grips with, besides slavery itself, the single most heinous crime against humanity committed in the annals of U.S. history: the centuries-long sexual exploitation and subjugation of Black women and girls….

How many black women and girls were sexually exploited?

The 1860 federal census provides a clue. In Southern or slaveholding states, and in Northern states respectively, 518,360 and 69,885 people were classified as “mulattoes.”

Then King refers to a relationship that was revealed almost a decade ago. I did not read about it then.

A 22-year-old White South Carolinian who impregnated a 16-year-old Black maid in his father’s house also comes to mind. He, Strom Thurmond, avowed segregationist, Dixiecrat presidential candidate and staunch opponent of civil rights legislation, went to his grave without saying a word about what he did to that teenager. As did hundreds if not thousands of White men before him.

King links to an article that tells the story of Thurmond’s never-acknowledged black daughter. It was written by journalist Mary C. Curtis and published in the Washington Post in 2013.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams lived for 87 years. But, in her own words, she was never “completely free” until she could stand before the world and say out loud that Strom Thurmond, the one-time segregationist South Carolina senator, was her father. That was in 2003, after she had spent more than 70 years being denied what we all deserve – her true name and birthright. “In a way, my life began at 78, at least my life as who I really was,” Washington-Williams wrote in her life story. She has died.

Thurmond’s oldest child — born when he was a 22-year-old man and her mother, Carrie Butler, a 16-year-old black maid in his father’s house – had kept the senator’s secret, an open one rumored about but never revealed when he was alive because, she had said, “He trusted me, and I respected him.” As in the case of Thomas Jefferson, another successful southern politician who was father to black children, stories shared among African Americans were long disbelieved until they turned out to be true….

She remained silent even as he did his best to block civil rights legislation and uphold white supremacy. She and her mother occasionally visited Thurmond’s law office. He sometimes gave her money. But he never gave her his name.

In 2003, she could finally stop holding her breath and tell her truth. The Thurmond family didn’t dispute her, and her name was added to the list of children on a monument for the senator on the grounds of the South Carolina state house, joining the Confederate flag, a monument to the contributions of African Americans and statues honoring segregationists who did their worst but could not stop Washington-Williams from achieving.

Wanda Bailey, Washington-Williams’ daughter, said in The State newspaper that her mother was an inspiration. “She was there for us,” Bailey said. “She was a very giving person. She did everything she could not only for her children, but her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

In that, she proved a better person than the man who spent his own life denying her. I wonder if she was smiling a few years ago when she said she would become a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy through Thurmond’s ancestral lines.

Facing internal conflicts most could only imagine, she became a mother, wife, teacher, and a daughter that Strom Thurmond or any father could be proud of.

South Carolina journalist Marilyn Thompson was credited with breaking the story of Strom Thurmond’s biracial daughter.