Former South Carolina Resident Recalls Racism In Campaign For Strom Thurmond High School Name Change

Strom Thurmond Racism

Getty A portrait of Strom Thurmond.

A former South Carolina resident has recounted the racism she experienced growing up as she petitions to change the name of Strom Thurmond High School in Edgefield County.

Ashley Hart Adams, who was raised in South Carolina, has launched a petition that outlines the need to change the name of Strom Thurmond High School. The petition describes the senator as a “vehement segregationist” who “hypocritically … fathered a biracial (African-American) daughter.”

“His likeness and history should be remembered in museums and books, but his determination to prevent the advancement of Black lives makes him unfit to be celebrated or commemorated,” the petition says.

The current petition has over 500 signatures, while a petition to rename the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center at the University of South Carolina has more than 16,000 signatures. Advocates for the name change at the Wellness and Fitness Center include “former University of South Carolina football stars Marcus Lattimore, Mike Davis and Alshon Jeffery,” the Aiken Standard said.

Here’s what you need to know:

Adams Says the Name Change Is Long Overdue

Ashley Hart Adams

CourtesyAshley Hart Adams.

Born in Aiken, South Carolina, and later moving to North Augusta, Adams went to North Augusta High School and obtained her bachelor’s degree from Anderson University in South Carolina. She completed her graduate studies at Louisiana State University before moving to New York. She told WJBF News that the moment she learned of Thurmond’s legacy was the moment she knew something needed to change.

Speaking in an interview with Heavy, she said her campaign to change the school name was also sparked by a “joke” made by a teacher at North Augusta High about Strom Thurmond High. She said the white teacher “jokingly” told her Strom Thurmond wouldn’t have wanted her at the school.

“The south is magic. I love that every time I go to the grocery store I see someone I know, church on Sunday, Friday night football, the entire culture,” she said. She continued:

But the south was where the heartbeat of slavery in this country was located. I went to the Martin Luther King Civil Rights Museum in September and the number of times South Carolina came up was incredible – we were the largest of slave states, one of the biggest proponents of segregation, and we were one of the last to jump on board progressing forward. We held out until the very end.

[Instances like] my teacher laughing – that’s an example of South Carolinians ineffectively trying to deal with our past. Because it’s never been dealt with – the time is up on that. It should have been reckoned with a while ago; we let it go on too long.

When I first starting observing people publicly expressing disdain for these monuments of slave owners, commemorations of segregationists, and symbols such as the confederate flag, I was inspired. The Confederate flag – we know what that battle was for. People wanted slavery to remain so badly, they were traitors to their country. The fact that there are monuments to these people is very unusual but very common in the south. It makes quite an impression on young people.

One story that particularly struck Adams came from an African American man who said when his family first moved to Southern Carolina, his mother looked Thurmond up and opted out of sending him to the school.

“The name doesn’t align with [the school’s] values. It alienates incoming Black students,” Adams told Heavy. She conceded that those who had known Thurmond personally “may think of him affectionately [but that’s] very different from his legacy.”

‘I Got Harsher Punishment for Wearing Spaghetti Straps Than a Boy Who Called Me a Racial Slur,’ Adams Said

The former straight-A student and class president recalled other instances of racism growing up Black in South Carolina. She said she had frequent contact with Strom Thurmond High playing sports and attending prom and remembers there were “no repercussions” when she was called a racist epithet by a fellow North Augusta student.

I think about that incident a lot — that person was a friend, or so I thought, of mine.

I was friendly with him, we were both in honors classes together. I was running during cross country practice. I went to wave at him. He said, ‘look at that n*****.’ I said don’t say that. He said it again.

We need to fix that environment. I can think of many of my friends who got far worse.

I went back to the school and told the teacher what had happened. She knew his mother, the teacher went to the athletic director, who called his mom and said, ‘your son did this to one of my students.’

When I got home from practice, there was a knock at my door. It was the student and both of his parents. The athletic director of the school gave him my address.

He did not express remorse. He denied doing it, and I was gaslit and coerced into denying my own experience.

The next day he was back in class.

I got harsher punishment for wearing spaghetti straps than the boy who called me a racial slur. We have accepted racism. … Students feel emboldened to call young women racial slurs because of systems we have in place like honoring Strom Thurmond.

Thurmond Was a Segregationist Who Fathered an Illegitimate Child With a Black Woman

Edgefield-born Thurmond was a decorated war veteran and avowed anti-integrationist.

He was admitted to the bar in 1930 and elected to the South Carolina Senate in 1933.
The New York Times reported that he “joined the Army as a captain” in 1941. “His civil affairs unit was among the first to arrive at the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald,” the New York Times said.

His military awards included the French Croix de Guerre and Bronze Star for valor.

He ran for governor of South Carolina when he returned from the war and was elected in 1946. The New York Times reported:

A month after he took office in 1947, a mob in Greenville lynched a Black man accused of robbing and killing a white taxi driver. As governor, Mr. Thurmond brought in a tough prosecutor, but a jury acquitted all 28 white defendants. Mr. Thurmond was widely praised for his efforts, and he said he believed the prosecution would deter lynchings in the future. South Carolina has never had another lynching.

In 1957, he conducted a one-man filibuster in an attempt to obstruct the passing of new civil rights legislation introduced by United States Attorney General Herbert Brownell.

He had four children with two wives, and a fifth child to an African American woman, Carrie Butler, when he was 22 and she was 16. Her daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, came forward about the identity of her father in 2003 after Thurmond’s death at age 100.

In an interview with Dan Rather, Washington-Williams confirmed her mother introduced Thurmond to his daughter when she was a teenager and he later paid for her college education. Speaking to Rather, she described her father as “a very nice person.” Thurmond’s family has publicly acknowledged that Thurmond fathered Washington-Williams in 1925.

Thurmond ran for president in 1948. He was a Democrat until 1964, when he switched to the Republican party. He said the Democrats were “leading the evolution of our country to a socialistic dictatorship.”

During his campaign for the presidency, he said “on the question of social intermingling of the races, our people draw the line … all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”

Slate said in a 2002 article, “Thurmond has never publicly repudiated his segregationist past, and with his 100th birthday and a Senate career behind him, it’s doubtful he ever will.”

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