First Black woman elected to Dayton Municipal Court reflects on 42 years behind the bench

DAYTON — Alice McCollum often stood out during her lengthy judicial career.

Sometimes she was the only woman in the room, or the only Black person, and sometimes it was both. But during her journey to be “first” often times it started out with her feeling like she was anything but.

McCollum, the first woman, and first Black woman, elected to the Dayton Municipal Court sat down with News Center 7′s Cheryl McHenry after calling it a career with 42 years of service to Montgomery County behind the bench.

McCollum grew up in Durham, North Carolina, in the era of segregation and Jim Crow Laws. Although her parents were both professionals with Masters degrees, McCollum learned that being Black meant different treatment.

“You could go to, what it was then, Woolworth’s. You could purchase, but you couldn’t eat at the lunch counter,” McCollum said.

And the different treatment included long drives to visit relatives in Oklahoma.

“We could stop for gas but you couldn’t use the restroom,” she said.

After graduating from a segregated high school, McCollum attended college at the integrated University of North Carolina Greensboro and for the first time in her life had white teachers. But as a professor in a health class teaching a lesson on diets showed, even an integrated school still had deep-rooted biases.

“Negroes like to eat ham, sweet potatoes, cornbread, fried something else she named, blah, blah, blah, blah. I was the only African-American student in that class, and she says to me ‘Don’t they Alice?’”

“And being the kid of person I am I said ‘I don’t know. You’d have to ask somebody else because I don’t like anything you just named,’” McCollum said.

After college the discrimination continued, and with the Vietnam War still going on, McCollum faced sexism while attending the University of Cincinnati law school on scholarship.

“You know they didn’t want you there because they said you’re taking up a spot for some man who had to go to Vietnam because you took the spot to come to law school.”

After graduating from UC, she was a lawyer before quickly being appointed to the Dayton Municipal Court at just 31-years-old. She presided for 24 years and was known for helping out defendants facing charges she thought were unfair, like jaywalking.

“The police had a nickname for me. I was called ‘Let ‘em Go Alice O’ because I just listened to everybody’s story and if I thought ‘this doesn’t sound right’ or ‘I think the police overstepped their bounds,’ I’m going to find a person not guilty,” she said.

But despite her nickname, she had positive relationships with police and was often the judge detectives sought out in the middle of the night to sign search warrants.

And when she started campaigning for the probate court, McCollum said she realized she made a difference in people’s lives. During her campaign she recalled many people thanking her for her work on the bench.

“So I’m thinking ‘maybe I shouldn’t win this, maybe I shouldn’t go to probate court. Maybe I need to stay where I am because I’m obviously making an impact and improving people’s lives,’ which is what I really wanted to do in the first place,” she said.

But for the last 18 years, McCollum has been away from the criminal side of law and has been dealing with estates and wills and what she calls ‘people fighting over other people’s money.’ However she’s greatly enjoyed approving adoptions.

“That’s the great thing we do here - connecting families. I handle those on Friday mornings to end my week on a high note. It’s wonderful,” she said.

McCollum said she finds it troubling to see racism still exits but implores young people, especially those of color, to get and education and study hard.

“Its like, find something that you have a passion for and do it, and do it well so that you can succeed and feel successful. I think part of achieving is feeling like you’re achieving. Y’know, its like feeling like you belong,” McCollum said.

Now, after finding a way to belong, McCollum exits the bench, and left the community with a final thank you.

“I am grateful for the people of Montgomery County for giving me the opportunity to serve. That’s all I wanted to do is serve the people of the community to make it a better place for everyone,” she said.

In retirement, McCollum will still serve her community on the governing board of her church and her 8-year-old grandson to help keep her busy.