The Strange Case of Ruby McCollum

Dr. Clifford Leroy Adams’ murder was a seminal moment. “Ruby put whites                                                                                          on notice that maybe Blacks weren’t going to stand for this any more.”

Ruby McCollum trail was railroaded by the failure to allow her testimony to be entered

Ruby McCollum trail was railroaded by the failure to allow her testimony to be entered

The Strange Case of Ruby McCollum

By Eleana Elan

 Defender Contributing Writer 

 

As  women we have come a long way; as Black women, there is a way to go. Our experience as women has still been worse than our White counterparts and only because we are Black.

This issue celebrates the women of The Race in a big way because we have accomplished much to be recognized.

This particular story, however, is to remind us that we must always stay focused, and move full steam ahead. The story captures the life of Ruby McCollum, who stood up against a system that meant to crush and bury her.

Ruby McCollum, who was born August 31, 1909 and died May 23, 1992, was a wealthy married African-American woman living in Florida, known for killing a prominent white doctor in 1952 who had been elected to the state senate.

Mrs. McCollum was allowed to testify during her trial that the doctor had abused her and forced her to have sex and bear his child. However, much of her other testimony was prevented by objections from the prosecution.

“They didn’t want to think Doc Adams was the type of man that would sleep with a Black woman –would rape a Black woman over and over again, would beat her, harass her, torment her, terrorize her, drug her without her consent. I mean, what type of person would do that?

“Doctor Adams was that kinda guy,” says Ruth Thompson-Miller, a professor of sociology and anthropology and the writer of Jim Crow’s Legacy: The Lasting Impact of Segregation (Perspectives on a Multiracial America), notes in the documentary You Belong to Me: Sex, Race, and Murder in the South.

 

The Raping Policeman

Her story is significant because it is the precedent for former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who was sentenced to a full 263 years in prison last week for a series of rapes and sexual assaults against Black women living in his beat area.

Holtzclaw was convicted in December 2015 on 18 separate counts of rape, sexual battery, forcible sodomy, and lewd exposure. He had been charged with 36 separate counts stemming from the allegations of 13 different women.

The 18 convictions against Holtzclaw came from charges levied by eight of those 13 accusers, and had a maximum combined sentence of 263 years. He will spend the rest of his life serving the entire sentence. All 13 women who accused him of sexual assault in various forms were Black.

Prosecutors said, “Holtzclaw took a deliberate, systematic approach to his victims.” He didn’t choose CEOs or soccer moms. He chose women he could count on not telling what he was doing,” prosecutor Lori McConnell said in closing arguments. “He counted on the fact no one would believe them and no one would care.”

Holtzclaw’s  formula failed when he targeted a 57-year-old woman who had no criminal record and was not a resident of the low-income area where he was assigned.

Her choice to report her rape to the police department opened the door that unraveled the series of rapes that ultimately led to Holtzclaw’s arrest, according to the Washington Post. In another time with a jury of her peers, Ruby McCollum would most likely been viewed as an abused woman who had been terrorized by a sadistic rapist. Her actions were those of a woman who in her defense felt she had no other choice. And Dr. Adams should have been charged for his crimes against her.

Unfortunately for Ruby McCollum 64 years earlier, she was tried and convicted in Live Oak, Florida for the murder of Dr. C. Leroy Adams.

She was sentenced to death for killing a man whom she testified raped her over and over and was in fact the father of her youngest child, whom he forced her to give birth to even though she was married, knowing that it would raise questions.

Famed African-American novelist, short story writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston covered the trial for the Defender’s sister paper the Pittsburgh Courier.  However the judge at McCollum’s trial forbade reporters from talking to her – even acclaimed writers Zora Neale Hurston and William Bradford Huie–also an American journalist and novelist who wrote about controversial topics. 

Zora Neale Hurston, famed author/anthropologist covered the trial for Pittsburg Courier

Zora Neale Hurston, famed author/anthropologist covered the trial for Pittsburg Courier

Had she not, most likely we would not have Ruby McCollum’s side of the story documented. Zora Neale Hurston had to sit upstairs in the segregated gallery, in view of Ku Klux Klan members who were no doubt present. Hurston’s coverage brought McCollum international attention.

In the long term, McCollum’s case was considered a landmark trial in the struggle for civil rights, and instrumental in changing attitudes about the practice of “paramour rights.”

 

“Many historians are shocked that McCollum received a trial at all, as opposed to being lynched.”

McCollum’s attorney, Releford McGriff, was also part of a team that was crucial in changing Florida’s Jim Crow practice of selecting all-white male juries.

The Story Goes…

On August 3, 1952, Ruby McCollum met the prominent Dr. C. Leroy Adams in his office in Live Oak, Florida, to which she had driven with her two young children in the car.

She later admitted that she shot him four times with a revolver, after he would not agree to leave her alone. She said that over a period of years, he had repeatedly forced her to submit to sex and bear his child, and that her two-year-old daughter, Loretta, was his.

In notes and letters, McCollum said that Adams had abused her, and that she was pregnant with another child by him when she killed him. She also said that Adams took part in her husband Sam’s “illegal gambling operation.”

This was corroborated by an employee at Adam’s office, who described seeing the doctor accept “large deliveries of cash in examination rooms.”

McCollum was arrested and taken to the state prison 50 miles away temporarily, for protection, according to contemporary accounts.

The next day Mrs. McCollum’s husband Sam died of a heart attack in Zuber, Florida, where he had taken his children for safekeeping with Ruby’s mother.

Ruby McCollum was found guilty for her crime by a jury comprised of all white men, some of whom were Adams’ patients. She was sentenced to death by electric chair.

Her case was appealed and overturned by the State Supreme Court. When it came time for a second trial, McCollum was examined and found mentally incompetent to stand trial. She was committed to the state mental hospital at Chattahoochee, Florida.

It would have been for the rest of her live had not her attorney, Frank Cannon, acting on his own and without compensation, obtained her release under the Baker Act in 1974, as she was not considered a danger to herself or others.

The state of race relations at the time of the murder made it essentially impossible for a Black woman to receive a fair trial, especially for murdering a white man. This type of crime was unheard of in that era. A Black woman stood up to defend herself against her white abuser who represented the system. Not surprisingly, many historians are shocked that McCollum received a trial at all, as opposed to being lynched. Paramour Rights Ruby McCollum’s story is another example of how the intersection of race and sex can often result in a very specific experience for Black women (Black people) when navigating the criminal justice system.

Not surprisingly, many historians are shocked that McCollum received a trial at all, as opposed to being lynched.

Paramour Rights

Ruby McCollum’s story is another example of how the intersection of race and sex can often result in a very specific experience for Black women (Black people) when navigating the criminal justice system.

According to C. Arthur Ellis, Jr., the author of Zora Hurston and the Strange Case of Ruby McCollum, while covering the murder trial, Hurston recalled her work in the timber camps of North Florida, where she had discovered the practice of “paramour rights.”

This unwritten (and never spoken of or talked about) law of the antebellum South allowed a white man to take a “colored” woman as his concubine and force her to have his children.

Hurston expected the upcoming trial of Ruby McCollum to be an unprecedented forum for a “Negress” to testify in her own defense after being forced, through paramour rights, to bear a powerful white man’s children.

Over the years, the trial has been the subject of documentaries, books, television specials, and even plays. Writers, researchers, scholars, and filmmakers continue to examine the case, often positing that McCollum was driven to murder after years of abuse and as a result of being drugged.

The story remains fascinating because the details that emerged at trial were as shocking as the crime itself, says film producer Jude Hagin: a long-term sexual relationship between the town’s beloved doctor and the wife of an insurance man who also ran the local bolita gambling racket.

The other point of interest is  motive. Could such a relationship, in the days when the Klan ran entire counties, have been consensual? Most of the academics and historians interviewed in the film doubt it, but as Hagin points out, “We’ll never truly know what happened.”

However one thing that Hagin is clear about  is that Dr. Clifford Leroy Adams’ murder was a seminal moment. “Ruby put whites on notice that maybe Blacks weren’t going to stand for this any more,” she said.

We recognize Ruby McCollum for the courage to stand up against a racist system that failed to recognize her as a human being – daughter, sister, wife, and a mother with rights.

 

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