Vashti McCollum (November 6, 1912 – August 20, 2006) received national news in relationship to the McCollum v Board of Education case, the first case to proceed to the United States Supreme Court challenging sectarian religious instruction in public schools. It all started in 1940 when the Champaign Board of Education decided to have an hour of religious education a week in Champaign Schools. The McCollum family knew there was teaching of religion in Champaign Schools before their oldest son James Terry was introduced to the subject. They didn't do anything about it at that time because they were not affected by the programs. Religious instruction had started in junior high school and moved down grade by grade until it got to fourth grade when their son entered the fourth grade.
On the first day of class at South Side School, James brought home a card on which his parents were supposed to circle the religion they wanted him to study. The choices were Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant. On the slip there wasn't a place for other, or no religion. Mrs. McCollum did not mark the card, so Jim took a blank card back to school. The religious classes came at different times during the week. While the classes were being taught Jim had to sit in the principal's office doing school work. Once he had to sit in the hall. The other kids in his class thought he was being punished and they were mean to him. Jim wanted to take the religious classes but his parents wouldn't let him at first. Then in early spring his mother let him be in one of the classes but around Easter Jim brought home a picture that was very religious. That was when the McCollums decided that they would no longer let Jim take the class. The following year, James went to Dr. Howard School where there were also religious classes. Once again he met difficulties with other students because he did not take the classes.
Vashti McCollum thought that if she said a few things to the teacher about not teaching religion in public school, the problems might go away. But it didn't work. Next Vashti went to the Superintendent of Champaign Schools but he said that he could not do anything about the classes so she went to the Circuit Court of Champaign County. The Circuit Court agreed with the Champaign School Board. The religious education continued. Mrs. McCollum believed that church and state should be separate because of the First and Fourteenth Amendments so she took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court. Still nothing was done about the religious program in Champaign so Mrs. McCollum took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court decided by a vote of 8 to 1 that public schools should not have sectarian religious classes. Even though the case was won in March, 1948, it had taken three years of struggle for the Champaign School Board to be forced to stop the religious classes. The final legal order came that fall when Mrs. McCollum and the attorneys met with the local judge. Her lawyer asked Vashti not to say anything in court, but while there she asked the judge if he had read the Supreme Court decision. She was surprised when the judge said that he should have, but he had not read it yet. After he read the Supreme Court decision, the judge agreed with Mrs. McCollum and her lawyer that no sectarian religion should be taught in the public schools.
During the course of these legal proceedings, Vashti McCollum received hate mail and rude calls. Sometimes parents told their children not to play with the McCollum children. Once Jim was hurt so badly that he had to go to the hospital. They sent him to a private school. He returned to Urbana later to attend University High School. In college Jim studied geology and later, law.
She received a BA Liberal Arts and Sciences, and an MA Mass Communications, both from the University of Illinois.
She was born in Lyons, New York to Mr. and Mrs. Arthur G. Cromwell.
McCollum wrote a book on the case, One Woman's Fight (1953), became a world traveler and served two terms as president of the American Humanist Association from 1962-1965. She was also a signer of the Humanist Manifesto II in October 1973.
Named after the Old Testament feminist Queen Vashti, and born as Vashti Ruth Cromwell in Lyons, New York, she was raised in nearby Rochester, New York and attended Cornell University on a full tuition scholarship until the stock market crash and deepening economic depression depleted the scholarship fund and forced her to withdraw from Cornell. She later transferred to the University of Illinois.
She met her husband-to-be, John Paschal McCollum at Champaign-Urbana, and the couple married in 1933. The McCollums had three children: James, Dannel, and Errol. Dannel McCollum later served three four-year terms as mayor of Champaign, Illinois and wrote a book on the case that became the basis for a PBS documentary The Lord Is Not on Trial Here.