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 New York State. 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. 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, Ill., 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, Vashti was branded "that awful McCollum woman" and their family became community pariahs. Despite losing at both trial and appellate level, Vashti did not give up. On March 8, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision delivered by Justice Hugo Black, vindicated Vashti and the constitution in a lovely 8-1 decision that is still precedent. Vashti wrote her classic account, One Woman's Fight, in 1951. She went on to serve two terms as president of the American Humanist Association, also receiving its "distinguished service" award. She 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 honorary officer of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and was featured in the Foundation's 1988 film, "Champions of the First Amendment." A nonagenarian, she had been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. D. 2006.

“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; Photo donated to FFRF

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