Vashti Cromwell McCollum

On this date in 1912, champion of the First Amendment Vashti McCollum, née Cromwell, was born in Lyons, New York, the daughter of Arthur G. and Ruth Cromwell. Arthur was a noted atheist activist in Rochester. Vashti was named by her mother for the biblical character who was "the first exponent of woman's rights." She studied at Cornell and the University of Illinois but on the verge of graduation married John Paschal ("Pappy") McCollum in 1934. He was a University of Illinois horticulture department professor. They had three children before she completed her degree in political science and law in 1944.

The couple's idyllic life as a faculty family in Champaign changed radically when their oldest boy, Jim, entered the fourth grade and was pressured to participate in religious instruction. When she withdrew Jim from the class, he was put in what amounted to detention. After filing suit to stop the unconstitutional instruction, she lost her job at the university and was branded "that awful McCollum woman." The family became pariahs to much of the community.

Despite losing at both the trial and appellate levels, McCollum did not give up. On March 8, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision delivered by Justice Hugo Black, vindicated her in an 8-1 decision that is still precedent. She wrote her classic account One Woman's Fight in 1951 and went on to serve two terms as president of the American Humanist Association and receiving its distinguished service award.

McCollum earned her master's degree in mass communication as a returning student and by the late 1950s became a world traveler, often going "surface," visiting nearly 150 countries and all seven continents, including Antarctica. She was an FFRF honorary officer, was featured in the foundation's 1988 film "Champions of the First Amendment" and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and major British newspapers all carried stories of her death in 2006 at age 93.

“Between being praised and persecuted, condoned and condemned, I might understandably have become bewildered, particularly at the brand of ethics sometimes displayed by the staunch defenders of Christianity. But of one thing I am sure: I am sure that I fought not only for what I earnestly believed to be right, but for the truest kind of religious freedom intended by the First Amendment, the complete separation of church and state.”

—Vashti Cromwell McCollum, "One Woman's Fight" (1951)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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