Our 20' x 10' gallery of freethinkers grows every year as our Planning Committee considers and nominates historical freethinkers.
Nominees must have espoused our Core Values during their living years, and it is here in our Freethinker Gallery that we recognize their contributions to society after they have passed on.
A full list of our Freethinker Gallery Inductees will soon be here. Until then, we encourage you to learn about our Prior Years.
Zora Neale Hurston
Novelist · Folklorist · Anthropologist
Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, to John Hurston and Lucy Potts Hurston in Notasulga, Alabama. The family moved to Eatonville, Florida – the sole African American town to receive a charter in the United States.
“Maybe, some of the details of my birth as told me might be a little inaccurate, but it is pretty well established that I really did get born.”
Zora was adventurous and inquisitive. As a child, Zora would test boundaries and dream of walking “out to the horizon” looking to “see what the end of the world was like.” She engaged her creativity and imagined stories and plays.
Her life in Eatonville would change radically when, at 13, her mother passed and her father remarried shortly thereafter. Zora soon left Eatonville and worked, wandered, and struggled to finish school. She earned an associate's degree from Howard University and a bachelor's at Barnard University in New York – the only African American student at the time.
“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein.”
In Florida, Zora documented rural African American folk stories. In New Orleans, Zora “…delved into Hoodoo, or sympathetic magic,” which mapped West African religion over Catholicism and Catholic iconography. Zora also researched and documented the folk music of the Bahamas, even producing several shows in the United States featuring this music. She went to Haiti and Jamaica to document Voodoo rituals there, concluding Voodoo to be no “more invalid than any other religion.”
"The unreachable and therefore the unknowable always seem divine—hence, religion. People need religion because the great masses fear life and its consequences. Its responsibilities weigh heavy. Feeling a weakness in the face of great forces, men seek an alliance with omnipotence to bolster up their feeling of weakness, even though the omnipotence they rely upon is a creature of their own minds."
Zora Neale Hurston was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She was one of the giants amongst Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and Ethel Waters. Zora published four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, numerous short stories, and several essays, articles and plays.
She considered the cultures of the African diaspora as a palette to paint her life. Hurston was not a Christian nor did she adhere to any religious denomination or sect. It would be a mischaracterization to label her an atheist, however. Christopher A. Cameron, Ph.D. the University of North Carolina, holds that “Hurston never articulated an atheist position, but her ideas about God and prayer show her to be a Deist.”
“… while we all talk about justice more than any other quality on earth, there is no such thing as justice in the absolute in the world.”
Zora remained active throughout her life, though fell into obscurity after her passing. Another literary giant, Alice Walker (The Color Purple), is credited with rediscovering Zora – ensuring that future generations of writers, anthropologists, and philosophers would know of her work.
AHA President · Author · Activist
Vashti prevailed in a landmark Supreme Court case in 1948 dealing with religious involvement in public schools.
“The question of my own personal beliefs is entirely beside the point. I have never meant this to be a question of religion versus atheism; but rather, a definition of the separation of church and state."
Vashti Cromwell McCollum was born on November 6, 1912, in Lyons, New York. She began her studies at Cornell University and later transferred to the University of Illinois. She earned a BA in Liberal Arts and Sciences and a master’s degree in Mass Communications. Vashti and John Paschal McCollum were married in 1933 and the couple had three children, James, Dannel, and Errol. After winning in the Supreme Court, McCollum went on to write One Woman’s Fight (1953), and to serve two terms as president of the American Humanist Association. She was also one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto I and II. A PBS documentary titled “The Lord is Not on Trial” was released in 2010 based on a book by the same title written by her son, Dannel McCollum.
In 1944, James McCollum was enrolled in the Champaign, Illinois public school system as a fourth grader when he was given a permission slip to take home. The form sought parental consent for James to be included in a program of religious instruction during the school day known as “release time” when children were instructed in the parents’ choice of Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish teaching. Instead of the students leaving school to attend at their houses of worship as was the custom in other areas, the Protestant clergy were allowed to teach students in the school facility for 30 minutes each week.
The McCollums at first agreed to allow their son to attend the Protestant classes, but when he entered the fifth grade, they refused since they felt the class content was inappropriate for public schools, a waste of taxpayer money, and discriminated against minority religions. James’ teachers pressured him to attend, and school officials pressured his parents to allow him to be included since he was the only child in his class not attending. James was made to sit alone in the hallway while the classes were being held, a condition viewed as ostracism by his parents. After meeting with the administration, school officials refused to change this policy, and in 1945 Vashti McCollum filed a lawsuit against the school district.
The suit sought to bar the classes from public school. The classes, the suit claimed, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by favoring one religion over another, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that the law applies equally to all people. The 6th judicial circuit court ruled against McCollum, and the Illinois Supreme Court also ruled against her on appeal. On December 8th, 1947, the Supreme Court of the United States took up the case, and on March 8th, 1948, the decision was handed down with a vote of 8-1 in favor of McCollum. The key component of the decision was that the Establishment Clause required neutrality between belief and nonbelief, not only equal treatment of different religions. McCollum is a landmark case because even today it is adhered to in issues such as school prayer, sectarian displays on public property, and taxpayer aid to private religious schools.
“I am pleased to discover that there are so many people actively supporting the real issue–separation of church and state."