|Vashti Cromwell MCCollum 1912 - 2006|
Vashti Ruth Cromwell, named for the queen of Ahasuerus in the first book of Esther who was one of the few biblical women to stand up for womenís rights, was born in Lyons, New York on 6 November 1912 to Arthur G. and Ruth C. Cromwell. She was raised in Rochester, New York and after graduation from a public high school, attended Cornell University on a full tuition scholarship until the market crash of í29. Transferring to the University of Illinois, she eventually obtained her AB in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1944 and MS in Mass Communications in 1957, after interruptions for marriage and children.
After arriving in Champaign-Urbana to attend the U of I, she met Dr. John P. MCCollum, a staff member, whom she married in 1933. Their three sons all graduated from college with at least one degree. James Terry, the oldest, went on to obtain a JD from the U of I College of Law and practiced law in Rochester, New York for nearly 34 years until his retirement in 1994. Dannel obtained an MS in History from the U of I and was the longest serving mayor of Champaign, Illinois, serving three terms. Errol Cromwell, after obtaining his BS in Mechanical Engineering from Southern Illinois University, eventually established a chain of bicycle stores along with a partner and was actively engaged in that enterprise until his retirement in 1996. All three remain active in other pursuits.
Vashti was to live up to her namesake when she and her oldest son, Jim, were confronted with pressure to enroll him in a Christian Sunday school type class that was being offered in the public schools of Champaign during school hours. Resisting the pressure at first, she and her husband eventually relented and allowed Jim to attend the classes the balance his 4th grade year. However, the following year, the MCCollums, feeling that such a program was totally inappropriate in the public schools, refused further participation. This, of course, resulted in Jim taking heat from his peers and suffering some indignities at the hands of his unenlightened 5th grade teacher.
After unrequited attempts to have the program discontinued administratively and after much soul searching, with the aid and support of the Rev. Phillip Schug, the Unitarian minister in town, and with financial assistance from a group of Jewish businessmen in Chicago, she filed a writ of mandamus in the Champaign County Circuit Court in the late summer of 1945. At this point things really became rough for the MCCollums, ranging from physical confrontations between Jim and his peers, to vandalism of their home, to attempts at terminating Prof. MCCollumís employment at the university. Fortunately, for Dr. MCCollum, his tenured status secured his position with the university. However, Vashtiís employment as an adjunct instructor in the womenís physical education program, was terminated.
The three judge panel, sitting to hear the case in the Circuit Court, decided that, in spite of the clear language in the Illinois constitution to the contrary, the practice violated neither it nor the establishment of religion clause of the 1st Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed with the lower court and the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari in the fall of 1947. 50 years ago, on 9 March 1948, the US Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in the Peo. of the State of Illinois, ex rel MCCollum -v- Board of Education, 333 US 203 (1948), in a decision, written by Justice Hugo L. Black, that was to become a landmark case in U.S. constitutional law. The significance of the decision was that it was the first case of impression that held the several states accountable to the strictures of the establishment of religion clause of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution under the aegis of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. All cases, involving school prayers, aid to parochial schools, sectarian religious displays on public property and other such incursions into Jefferson's wall of "separation of church and state" by the states and their municipalities, descend from this case.
As in any such case and particularly in this one, because of the MCCarthyistic mood of the late 40ís and 50ís, when Communism was considered the scourge of humanity and atheists were considered by many as either Communists or fellow travelers, this case took its toll on Mrs. MCCollum and her family. However, she was resolute, as was her namesake in the Bible, and persisted, despite disappointing losses in the lower courts, until she finally triumphed with her decisive 8 to 1 victory in the high court. For the results of this case alone, if not for her courage and perseverance, she deserves recognition in the annals of U.S. constitutional law.
Among the awards and recognition accorded her in subsequent years were the prestigious John Haynes Holmes Award (now the Holmes-Weatherly Award) from the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice, the second person to be so honored. Other recipients were Whitney Young, Roger Baldwin and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. She also has received recognition from the Illinois ACLU, the Champaign County Chapter of the Illinois ACLU, the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the Illinois ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Rochester, New York Chapter of Americans United, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association.
Vashti MCCollum, this gutsy lady who wouldn't let sectarian special interests take over the public schools, finally passed on to her rewards on 20 August 2006, 7 weeks prior to her 94th Birthday. The legacy she left behind in the field of U S constitutional law will not soon be forgotten.
A book, written by Mrs. MCCollum about the circumstances of the case, entitled "One Woman's Fight", has been reprinted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and can be obtained from them.