Claflin Trustee Emeritus Retired Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney Jr. Passes Away

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

Ernest A. Finney Jr., distinguished and pioneering Claflin University alumnus and retired Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court Justice, passed away on Sunday, December 3, 2017. Justice Finney became the first African-American to hold the highest office in South Carolina’s justice system. 

“The Claflin University family is deeply saddened by the passing of Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney Jr. My wife, Alice, and I are personally touched by his loss. He was a friend and confidant and one of the University’s most treasured and beloved graduates. As chairman of the Board of Trustees for Claflin University, his dedicated and devoted service was transformative. Chief Justice Finney was a man of remarkable humility and a strong advocate for equality and human rights. He was an outstanding leader and his legacy as the first African American to rise to the top position in the Supreme Court of South Carolina will live on. He undoubtedly will be an inspiration for current and future generations of Claflinites. Our thoughts and prayers are with Frances and their children and we join them in cherishing the distinguished accomplishments and life of Justice Finney,” said  President Henry N. Tisdale.

Born in 1931 in Smithfield, Va., Finney graduated Claflin with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952. In 1954, he received a law degree from South Carolina State University. Upon graduation, he taught in Conway’s (South Carolina) public school system for five years before setting up his law practice in Sumter, S.C. 

In 1961, Finney represented the Friendship 9, a group of black college students who were arrested for trying to desegregate a McCrory’s Lunch Counter in Rock Hill. Two years later, Finney was appointed as chairman of the S.C. Commission on Civil Rights. 

Finney was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives in 1972 and was the first African-American to serve on the House Judiciary Committee since the Reconstruction era. In the House, Finney was a co-founder of the Legislative Black Caucus and served at its first chairman.

The Claflin alumnus was elected as a judge to S.C. Third Circuit Court in July 1976, becoming the Palmetto State’s first African-American Circuit Court judge in the process. Nine years later, he was appointed to the S.C. Supreme Court, later becoming the Chief Justice. He held that position until he retired in March 2000.

In 2002, he was the interim president of South Carolina State University, a post which he held for one year.

Finney served on Claflin’s Board of Trustees for two decades, elected as its chairman in 1986.  In 2003, the University granted him the status of trustee emeritus.

In 2002, the State of South Carolina honored him with two prestigious distinctions:

· In February 2002, he was inducted into the S.C. Hall of Fame for his contributions to the state’s legal, civil rights and educational realms.

· In July 2002, the Renaissance Cultural Arts Center Museum in Columbia was renamed the Ernest A. Finney, Jr. Civil Rights Museum. The Ernest A. Finney, Jr. Civil Rights Museum houses historical artifacts and documents from the contributions made by the African-American Ecumenical Faith Community and features the United Black Fund of South Carolina Hall of Fames inductees.

Finney was a member of the American Law Institute, the American Judges Association, the Conference of Chief Justices, the American and National Bar Associations, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and the NAACP. He was a past chairman of the Board of Directors of Buena Vista Development Corporation. He was also a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

He received honorary degrees from Claflin, The Citadel, Johnson C. Smith University, Morris College, College of Charleston, South Carolina State University, Wofford College, Francis Marion University and the University of South Carolina. He was also a 1998 inductee of the National Black College Hall of Fame, in addition to being a 1994 recipient of the South Carolina Order of the Palmetto.

He leaves to cherish his memory his wife, Frances Davenport Finney, ’56; children Attorney Jerry Leo Finney, Nikki Finney and Attorney Ernest (Chip) Finney III (Chip); and five grandchildren. 

Details for the funeral service will be shared as soon as they are made available.