Vashti Cromwell McCollum, the Illinois housewife whose objection to her son’s taking religious training in school led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming the separation of church and state in public education, has died. She was 93.
McCollum died Aug. 20 at an assisted-living facility in a suburb of Champaign, Ill., her son James said. She had been in declining health for several weeks after traveling to Rochester, N.Y., to attend a 95th birthday celebration for her sister, Helen Curtis.
James McCollum, the first of McCollum’s three sons, was in fourth grade in a Champaign school when he was required to take religious classes during the regular school day. The classes were held on campus, were taught by a former missionary to China and were mainly a Protestant program. The little religious education that was offered in Catholicism and Judaism was provided off campus.
Although his mother and father, John, a professor of horticulture at the University of Illinois, resisted the idea at first, they allowed him to attend the religious classes during that school year. James McCollum told The Times on Sunday that he was initially interested in seeing what the classes were all about but that he found them boring and silly.
The next year, when he was in fifth grade, he decided he didn’t want to go on with the training, and his parents supported him. His decision was met with ridicule from other students and primarily from a teacher who criticized him for keeping the class from being 100% in compliance with the religious curriculum.
Vashti McCollum went to the superintendent of schools but was told that there was nothing to be done about the requirement.
But after gaining the support of a local Unitarian minister and some financial backing from a group of Jewish businessmen in Chicago, she filed suit against the Champaign school board in July 1945. Six months later, a three-judge Circuit Court panel upheld the instruction. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld that ruling a year later.
But the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and on March 9, 1948, it delivered an 8-1 decision saying the religious education classes in Champaign’s public schools violated the constitutional provisions for separation of church and state.
Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black said, “The 1st Amendment has erected a wall between the church and the state which must be kept high and impregnable.”
Although the final decision was in her favor and set historic precedents, the road there was not easy for McCollum or her family.
“It was traumatic and expensive,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch some years ago. “But we had a happy home life and were sufficient unto ourselves and not too dependent on others,” she said. “And I knew I was right.”
She lost her job as a part-time dance instructor in the physical education department at the University of Illinois. And although her husband had tenure at the university, which kept him from being fired, his promotion to full professor was delayed by “10 or 15 years,” James McCollum said.
The family received threatening phone calls, and the house was occasionally pelted with eggs and rotten vegetables. Because of confrontations at school, James was sent to live with his mother’s parents in Rochester, N.Y.
And at the height of the struggle, the family cat was found lynched.
McCollum was born Vashti Ruth Cromwell in Lyons, N.Y., on Nov. 6, 1912, and was reared in Rochester, N.Y. Her father, a disabled World War I vet, was an architect and an atheist who read Thomas Paine, Spinoza and several versions of the Bible. He successfully lobbied the state of New York to end religious classes in public schools there.
After graduating from high school, Vashti was accepted to Cornell University on full scholarship but lost her financial aid after the stock market crash in 1929. She transferred to the University of Illinois, where she met her future husband, John P. McCollum. They married in 1933 and she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1944. She went back to the university and earned a master’s degree in mass communications in 1957.
The McCollums continued to live in Champaign after the Supreme Court ruling. McCollum denied she was an atheist, preferring to call herself a humanist. She served as president of the American Humanist Assn.
James McCollum returned to Champaign in the eighth grade. He went to University High School in Urbana and was something of a celebrity to his classmates.
He noted that, like most families in the community, they celebrated each year on Dec. 25. But their celebration was not to mark the birth of Jesus but to mark James’ birth on Christmas Eve.
James McCollum went on to a career in law in Rochester, N.Y. He now lives in Emerson, Ark., where he tends the farm that has been in his father’s family for generations. He is also the state chairman of the Arkansas chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Champaign apparently made peace with the family. Years after the case, McCollum’s second son, Dannel was elected to the City Council and was later elected to three terms as mayor. “He was the second Democrat and first atheist to serve as mayor,” James McCollum said.
But perhaps the overriding irony of the story comes from Vashti McCollum’s name.
Vashti comes from the book of Esther in the Old Testament of the Bible. The former queen of Xerxes, she refuses his command to dance and show off her beauty. She is divorced and dethroned for her independence.
In addition to sons James and Dannel and her sister, McCollum is survived by another son, Errol; six grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.