SOUTH CAROLINIANA LIBRARY
UNIVERSITY SOUTH CAROLINIANA SOCIETY
Robert McCormick Figg PapersSouth Carolina attorney, politician, and legal educator Robert McCormick Figg, Jr., was born on 29 August 1901 in Radford, Va., the eldest of four children born to Robert McCormick Figg, Sr., and Helen Josephine Cecil Figg. The elder Figg, an experienced foundry worker and master molder, relocated his family to Charleston in 1915 in order to accept employment at the navy yard there. Young Robert, who was half-way through public high school in Lynchburg, Va., completed his secondary studies at Porter Military Academy and then entered the College of Charleston. Following his graduation in 1920, Figg entered Columbia University School of Law.
Foregoing his final year of law school studies in 1922, the young attorney accepted employment with Rutledge, Hyde and Mann, a Charleston law firm known for its corporate clients and the significant political contacts of its partners. Two years after his admission to the state bar, 10 November 1922, Figg became a partner in the firm, with which he continued to practice until 1935. In 1927, Figg married Sallie Alexander Tobias (1901-1986), a Charleston native and 1926 graduate of the nursing program at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital.
Figg's first foray into politics came in 1930 when Charleston mayor Burnet Maybank appointed him to head the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment. In 1934, he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and a year later successfully campaigned for the office of solicitor of the Ninth Judicial District of South Carolina, serving three successive terms, 1935-1947.
In his debut as solicitor, an able and determined Figg won forty-five of forty-seven cases against some of the most experienced members of the bar. Reflecting on his first court term in a letter to his brother-in-law, Thomas J. Tobias, Jr., 9 April 1935, Figg mused—"Lots of people seemed to feel that the court house was going to fall down in ruins when I stepped in it, and in view of the fact that it is still standing I hope that the public eye will be diverted elsewhere from now on." In time, however, Figg was to establish a reputation as a distinguished prosecutor, prosecuting more than forty-five hundred criminal cases and giving special attention to jail cases and cases involving the misappropriation of public funds.
In addition to his prosecutorial duties, the solicitor authored bills for the legislative delegation to submit to the General Assembly. One of the most significant pieces of legislation written by Figg during three terms as solicitor authorized the creation of the South Carolina State Ports Authority. Working in partnership with state senator Cotesworth Means, who introduced the legislation, Figg pushed plans to allow the state to assume the operation of Charleston's Port Utilities Commission. The legislation, which was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Richard M. Jeffries in 1942, authorized the development and improvement of the harbors or seaports of Charleston, Georgetown, and Beaufort/Port Royal and fostered the shipment of freight and commerce through the ports. A five-member board of directors set out with three goals: to acquire the property of the Port Utilities Commission, to obtain more favorable inland transportation rates to and from Charleston, and to negotiate for transfer of military shipping facilities in the area.
Figg played a key role in negotiations with the City of Charleston, the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, and the Federal government to unite the various port facilities and place them in the control of the State Ports Authority. Following World War II, he was actively involved in negotiations with the Defense Department which resulted in port authorities under Federal control eventually being transferred to the State Ports Authority. For thirty years, 1942-1972, Figg served as legal counsel for the Authority, and by 1948 he had been named as one of two Supervisory Coordinators in charge of port administration.
Figg chose not to seek a fourth term as solicitor so that he could return to private practice in Charleston. He became the lawyer for Charleston County Council from 1949-1959 and the Charleston County Board of Education from 1935-1959. Figg remained politically active as an advisor to South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond, and during the 1948 States Rights Democratic Party movement he worked as a speech writer and advisor for Thurmond's presidential bid.
In private practice, Figg represented the Clarendon County School Board, whose chairman, R.W. Elliott, was sued in 1949 by a group of twenty African-American farmers that included Harry Briggs, Jr. Figg won the case Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al. against future U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in U.S. District Court. Marshall appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was heard with five other cases and resulted in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, finding that "separate but equal" facilities were in fact unconstitutional. Figg's involvement in the school desegregation cases and the States Rights movement precluded his appointment to the Federal bench on several occasions.
Then in 1958 Samuel Prince, retiring dean of the University of South Carolina Law School, chose Figg as his successor. Moving to Columbia, Figg assumed the dean's position in July 1959 and led the law school through the expansion-charged decade of the 1960s. Enrollment at the school soared, admission standards were raised, and the groundwork for the current Law Center was laid. In addition to his administrative duties, Figg taught classes and advised University departments regarding legal affairs.
Figg's appointment to the law school brought ringing praise from friends and colleagues. Beaufort businessman Calhoun Lemon hinted that the appointment was a mere stepping stone when he wrote, 17 February 1959—"Some...think...that you are one year away from President of the University, and that's the only reason you would consider the Deanship." Rising enrollment was the driving factor behind the school's development throughout Figg's tenure. Enrollment in 1959, when Figg came to the school, was 165. When he left in 1970, it was nearing 500.
During Figg's tenure as dean, the law school admitted its first African-American students. While his papers are silent as to his opinion on the admission of blacks to the University, other evidence delineates Figg's viewpoint on the race issue during this period. Speaking on 20 March 1960 at an Oberlin College symposium on civil rights, he repeated the states rights argument that the Federal government had no right to legislate voting and civil rights. The solution to the race problem, Figg suggested, "lies...in the continuance of public education of the masses of both races." Progress would come from education and economic improvement, not idealistic theories.
In 1967 Figg and the law school applied for Federal funding of a program that would provide legal services to the state's poor and indigent. Director of Legal Services Earl Johnson, Jr., writing on behalf of the Office of Economic Opportunity, 11 December 1967, recognized the irony of having the South Carolina application proposed by the former attorney for the state in Brown v. Board of Education. Noting the change in Figg's point of view, however, Johnson termed him the "leading advocate of a massive Legal Services Program for rural South Carolina."
An institutional self-study, released in 1971, reported that the effectiveness of the University of South Carolina law school was encumbered by two factors—financial deficiency and increased enrollemnt. The school needed more faculty members, higher salaries, and a larger library budget to maintain its ranking. Furthermore, teaching demands had limited the ability of the faculty to produce scholarly research, and the space problem was so acute that the faculty lounge and library had been converted to classroom space.
Figg's greatest challenge as dean was to solve the law school's physical plant dilemma. Several options were considered, but nothing short of a new building promised to address a wide range of needs. When the University approached the General Assembly in May 1969 to recommend the project, the school's list of new construction projects was weighty. Figg retired in 1970, three years before the present-day Law Center was completed.
Following his retirement from the University of South Carolina, Figg accepted an offer from friend and colleague David Robinson to become senior counsel with the Columbia law firm of Robinson, McFadden, Pope and Moore. From this vantage point he was able to remain involved in the law, but in a less encompassing role. In 1971, he was elected president of the South Carolina Bar Association.
Robert McC. Figg was one of a group of responsible conservatives who believed that it was time for the state to live up to the responsibility of the "equal" in "separate but equal," particularly in education. The desegregation struggle had barely begun when Figg spoke out on the issue. In 1948, he suggested the need of a program to improve the education and economic opportunities of African-Americans. In his 1960 address at Oberlin College, he again called for increased opportunity and added that change in race relations could only be brought about by the passage of time and the disappearance of "areas of community life in which race is a relevant factor."
This seventeen and one-half linear foot collection consists primarily of correspondence and legal briefs relating to Figg's legal cases. The bulk of the material dates between 1933, when Figg was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, and his death in 1991. The papers are divided into the following eight series: General Correspondence, Topical, Legal Cases, University of South Carolina School of Law, South Carolina State Ports Authority, Strom Thurmond/States Rights, Speeches, and Newspaper Clippings.
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