Ernest A. Finney Jr., the first African American to serve as Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court and the former interim president of South Carolina State University, died on December 3 in Columbia, South Carolina. He was 86 years old.
A native of Smithfield, Virginia, Finney’s mother died when he was 10 days old. His father became a dean at what is now Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Finney earned a bachelor’s degree at Claflin in 1952. He then earned a law degree at South Carolina State University. That law school closed in 1966 after the desegregation of the University of South Carolina.
After teaching for five years in the public schools of Conway, South Carolina, Finney set up a law practice in Sumter, South Carolina. He defended the Friendship 9, a group of Black college students who were arrested for their efforts to desegregate the lunch counter at McCrory’s in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Finney served in the South Carolina legislature before being elected to a circuit court judgeship. He was appointed an associate justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court in 1985 and was named Chief Justice in 1994. He retired from the bench in 2000 and later served as interim president of South Carolina State University.