Silencing Black Women in the White Courtroom
On August 3, 1952, Ruby McCollum walked into Dr. C. LeRoy Adams’s medical practice in Live Oak, Florida and shot and killed the doctor. Prosecutors at Ruby’s trial contended that she killed him over a disputed medical bill and because she was his spurned ex-lover. Ruby’s defense attorney insisted it was self-defense. Ruby was promptly tried for the murder by a judge who served as a pallbearer at the doctor’s funeral and a jury with the doctor’s former patients on it. She was found guilty and sentenced to death in the electric chair. The Live Oak community was ready to move on from the case and let Ruby pay for her crime. However, Zora Neale Hurston, novelist and reporter hired by the Pittsburgh Courier to cover the story, was disturbed by Ruby’s case. In particular, she was concerned that the judge and state attorney made sure that Ruby’s testimony was brief, and that the judge issued an order preventing her from speaking to reporters. Ruby McCollum was literally silenced during and after her trial.
There is no question that McCollum killed Adams. It was the middle of the day and there were witnesses, but the Live Oak community was not interested in understanding why. As historian Kali Nicole Gross has argued, Black women have never had the protection of the American judicial system and thus have never been the “beneficiaries of the full rights of citizenship.” The court was not interested in McCollum’s side of the story, nor was it concerned with fairness. Clearly, a judge who knew the victim enough to serve as a pallbearer in his funeral should have recused himself from the case. Ruby McCollum’s case is part of the long history of the carceral state’s heavy-handed and unjust policing of Black women.
Hurston’s series about the trial ran in the Pittsburgh Courier from October 1952 to April 1953. She also wrote out her thoughts on the case as she witnessed it unfold. From the beginning, Hurston knew that McCollum would not receive a fair trial. The “real story,” according to Hurston, happened on “the other side of silence.” McCollum’s marriage to her husband Sam had apparently dissolved because he was pursuing young women. When Ruby gave birth to a daughter that looked much like the well-respected white doctor, the relationship was officially over. Although the McCollums remained married, they slept in separate rooms. At the time of the murder, McCollum was pregnant with another child fathered by Adams. In her reporting, Hurston focused on the Live Oak community’s disdain for interracial relationships, emphasizing that the white community did not appreciate McCollum’s “boldness” and wished to silence any discussion about the heart of the case–sex between a white man and Black woman. Black community members denounced Ruby on the stand and Adam’s receptionist referred to her as a “nymphomaniac.” When witnesses broached the topic of previous conflicts between the doctor and McCollum, the witnesses were promptly excused.
Other coverage of the case was not quite as polite as Hurston’s and accused Adams of sexually assaulting McCollum over the course of six years. The American Communist Party likened the case to Rosa Lee Ingram’s and emphasized that Adams—a state-senator-elect and well-respected community member—was forcing himself on McCollum. The Daily Worker article argued that both the women’s trials revealed the degradation of Black women committed by the justice system. The Civil Rights Congress (CRC), the Party’s legal organ, kept a clip of McCollum’s case in a file labeled “genocide” linked to the “We Charge Genocide” petition the CRC presented to the United Nations three years earlier. Most importantly, Ruby described a non-consensual relationship in her very brief testimony on the stand. On the day of the murder, McCollum claimed that the gun was not hers but belonged to the doctor. When she went to his office to settle a bill, she agreed to pay the additional $100 the doctor demanded. After getting a receipt, she claimed that Dr. Adams’s pulled the gun on her and demanded that she have sex with him. She refused, and he began to beat her. In the struggle that ensued, McCollum told the court that she managed to get a hold of the gun and shot the doctor out of fear for her life.1
Hurston was disturbed by both McCollum’s enforced silence and the death sentence that followed. Unable to continue her own reporting, she called William Bradford Huie, former editor of the American Mercury magazine. Hurston believed that Huie, a fellow Alabaman and white civil rights activist, might be able to ask the questions in segregated and conservative Live Oak that Hurston was unable to ask. After investigating, Huie agreed with Hurston that the truth about Adams and McCollum’s relationship was much more complicated than what had been presented to the court. Huie, along with McCollum’s defense attorney’s, sued to get press access to McCollum, who by this point had been held in the Live Oak county jail rather than transferred to the state penitentiary where convicted felons were normally held. For his efforts, Huie was found in contempt of court. The same judge that tried and sentenced Ruby had Huie arrested and imprisoned.2
In 1956, Huie, with the aid and encouragement of Hurston, published a book about the case and uncovered details that were largely absent from the trial and much of the press coverage. Dr. Adams, as it turned out, was not such an upstanding citizen after all. Huie found that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; he engaged in the illegal bolero numbers game run by the McCollum’s; and he was a careless doctor. Ruby meanwhile languished in the county jail for nearly two years, where, she claimed that she was forced to abort her unborn child. In October 1954, Ruby was declared mentally incompetent, her death sentence vacated, and she was committed to the Florida State Hospital in Chattahootchie, Florida, where she would remain until January 1974.3
McCollum’s story underscores how Black women have never protected by the American judicial system. Even wealth could not protect Ruby McCollum. She and her husband were the wealthiest Black members of the Live Oak community. Yet her socioeconomic status could not shield her from the race and gender discrimination she encountered in her lifetime. In Silencing of Ruby McCollum, author Tammy Evans argues that McCollum had to be silenced in order to preserve white male supremacy. In her exploration of the important texts that emerged from the case, including Huie’s and Hurston’s body of work, Evans demonstrates that McCollum’s trial threatened to reveal the underlying foundation of the southern judicial and social system. As a result, silencing McCollum–by preventing her testimony and committing her to a mental asylum–was an imperative.
McCollum’s case also needs to be framed in relation to recent scholarship examining the histories of Black women and the carceral state. The collective behavior of the judge, jury, and local law enforcement revealed that McCollum would not receive a fair trial. Her enforced silence at the trial and during her imprisonment, and the attempts to silence other witnesses that described conflict in her relationship with Dr. Adams, demonstrate the clear efforts to prevent an adequate defense. The legal harassment of a well-known reporter, and the later reported threats by the Ku Klux Klan on Zora Neale Hurston’s life, reveal the coalition of the justice system and the white community to prevent any revelation about their “respected” doctor. Historian Kali Nicole Gross describes this phenomenon as a “profound alliance” and a “mutually constitutive allegiance” to maintain white supremacy via the policing of Black women’s bodies. There is no doubt that these alliances persist today–working to uphold the status quo and silence the voices of Black women.
Comments on “Silencing Black Women in the White Courtroom”
Thank you for sharing this story. It’s brand new to me and has powerful resonance with our current situation. Wow.
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