The first South Carolina African-American to serve as state Supreme Court chief justice, Ernest Finney retired from the court in 2000, justifiably proud of a legacy of preserving what is good about our system and looking to make improvements where there is need. He is remembered for a quiet, lasting impact as leader of a court that made high-impact rulings on issues such as education and video poker.
Finney, who died Sunday at age 86, was a resident of Sumter, but he had deep roots in Orangeburg.
Shortly after his retirement, Finney spoke at a tribute at his Claflin alma mater.
''Whenever I gave anything of myself, it was the best that I could find within me. If any decision has served me well, it was that one -- to give the best of myself. I have never considered that I was making history, my major concern was always that I do a job well. If you do that, the rest will likely fall in line.
“Looking back over the span of my life, I like what I see. I know that I'm a fortunate man to be able to say that,'' Finney said.
While there long will be discussion about cases and rulings of the Finney court, too little may be remembered statewide about the roots of the man. In Orangeburg, the Finney legacy forever will be special.
His father served as dean and registrar at then-Claflin College for 14 years.
Finney, in a sense, grew up on the campus. The connections he established remained throughout his life, with Finney being a long-serving member of the Claflin board. He is always lauded among the historic school's most famous alumni.
President Dr. Henry Tisdale has described Finney as the American dream come true.
What may be more relevant are the dreams of so many others that can come true because of Finney's life work. As young lawyers in the 1950s and '60s, Finney and the late Matthew Perry, a pioneer as an African-American federal court judge, championed the cause of civil rights -- from within the system. They were legal counsel for literally thousands of civil rights cases.
Their long legal and personal association had Orangeburg roots.
In the 1940s, the University of South Carolina law school was not an option for young black graduates. Fostering separate-but-equal, the S.C. Legislature thus created a law school at South Carolina State University. Finney and Perry were among its 51 graduates.
During the 2000 scholarship gala at S.C. State, Perry was honored with accolades including ''great American jurist.'' He offered the same tribute to his colleague.
''His career was an inspiration to us all. I watched him grow from the time that he finished law school. We tried the cases that turned this state around. I have celebrated with him at every milestone in his career. He has no idea how proud he has made so many people.''
Nowhere is the pride in Finney greater than Orangeburg and at Claflin and S.C. State universities. As much as Finney maintained close ties to Claflin, he never forgot the accomplishments of the law school at S.C. State led by three faculty members at its inception in the 1940s.
In fact, Finney said one of his regrets was not fighting harder to prevent the demise of the law school when the USC school was integrated.
But he gave back to S.C. State in ways beyond preserving the law school. In 2002, he came to the university’s rescue by agreeing to serve as interim president at age 81.
Such was the life of Ernest Finney and his record of service.
As Columbia attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson told The Associated Press about Finney: "He had one hand on the ladder pulling himself up and one hand behind him pulling others up.”