Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Ingredients of a 1950s melodrama minus the music

These are the ingredients of a dark 1950s melodrama. No dramatic music necessary. Stir in harassment and rape, illegal gambling, wealth, racism, Jim Crow laws, a married woman, White doctor turned senator-elect, paramour rights, murder by bullets, victim threatened with jail or beat down if she complained, neighbors whispering behind closed doors, sensational trial, death sentence, mental illness.

In the 1940s Ruby Jackson McCollum was an African American woman of wealth by way of her husband. As we say in the South she was “pissing in high cotton.” McCollum, her husband Sam and their children lived in a two-story stucco home surrounded by date palms, and a pond filled with goldfish. The McCollum’s were church going folks. They were upstanding citizens in Live Oak, population 4,000.

Money by any other name is still wealth

Sam McCollum’s owned a juke joint, a funeral home, sold insurance to Black folks, and owned a tobacco farm in a small farming town located in North Florida. Sam’s farm was the largest tobacco allotment in the county. They also owned a funeral home. He sat on the board of the largest Black run insurance company in Florida. Because Ruby was good at math she kept books for the family businesses. 

Clemon Jackson, Sam’s nephew, in an interview with producers of the movie “You Belong To Me”, said, “Each child had their own room. They had a lot of toys and stuff, and the best clothes and stuff, because she never shopped in Live Oak. She always went to Jacksonville. I think the name of the store was Monmaker in Jacksonville. The only way I took advantage of that was when the clothes got too small for Sam, Jr. they would give me the clothes. So I wore some pretty nice clothes”.

McCollum was educated at Fessenden Academy, a private school for African American students. Her goal was to be a school teacher, but she didn’t reach her career goal. However, life was good for the McCollum family.  She drove a new light blue Chrysler every year.  When Sam Jr. became college age he was accepted at UCLA in California.

Ruby McCollum
Ruby Jackson was born to Gertrude and William Jackson, August 31, 1901 in Ocala, Florida. She was the first daughter, the second born to the Jackson’s, who had five other children. Ruby was 20 years old when she married Sam McCollum. They moved to Nyack, New York, where their first son, Sam Jr. was born. After five years they moved back to Florida in 1940s. They lived in Live Oak in segregated Suwannee County, Florida. The state was dry; legal alcohol was not sold there until 2011. 

McCollum’s brother, Buck McCollum, had acquired a considerable fortune operating a lottery type gambling game called Bolita, a numbers racket. He was successful. He always paid the winners, and his customers were a mixture of Blacks and Whites. Sam learned the business, earning his own fortune. Considered a racketeer, Sam’s nickname was “Bolita Sam.” Sam McCollum moneyed the pockets of local police; a move that allowed him the freedom to operate without fear of his door getting kicked in by police or arrested.

Dr. Clifford Adams, the son of a wealthy, political family with loads of influence, was loved and respected by his Black and White patients. What people in Live Oak didn’t know about the good doctor was that he made himself a sideline partner in Sam’s gambling business. Being a Black man in living in the South Sam couldn’t tell Adams to take a hike up a mountain. The police and whomever else would have turned on him. Adams used to the money to run for senator, which he won. 
Ruby McCollum's fairy life comes to an abrupt end

The McCollum’s fairy tale life came to an end August 3, 1952 when Ruby McCollum shot Dr. Clifford Leroy Adams four times, foreclosing on his life, and the years of misery he had caused her. She went to his office with a 32 caliber revolver in her purse, entering his office through the “colored entrance.” Two patients sitting in the “Colored Waiting Room” said they heard Dr. Adams and McCollum arguing about a bill. She didn’t understand why they received a bill when neither she was nor her husband were treated. Amid the argument she demanded a receipt. The bill was never mentioned at the trial, nor was it produced by her attorney or the prosecutor.

On a TV show called “A Crime To Remember” it was revealed that Sam McCollum’s girl friend had a D&C performed after she got an abortion.  Supposedly Ruby McCollum opened the bill that was addressed to her husband. That was the bill she and Adams argued about. If this was true as depicted in the TV show testimony of the D&C was not broached at McCollum’s trial.  

When 42-year-old Ruby McCollum went to Dr. Adams office that morning she was pregnant with her second child by the doctor. According to  “A Crime to Remember” she wanted Adams to perform an abortion and “fix” her so she couldn’t get pregnant by him again. At her trial Ruby testified that she had a diaphragm, but Adams wouldn’t let her use it when he demanded sex.  After years of demanded rape, abuse and terror, it McCollum’s intent to tell Adams that she wanted him to leave her alone. But fate flipped the script. Dr. Adams had been coming to her home whenever he wanted. He knew that Sam was not home a lot. He busy overseeing his multi-business enterprises.

Dr. Clifford Adams
Adams told McCollum that he wouldn’t perform an abortion for her, warning that he would kill her if she tried to abort his baby. Dr. Adams shouted at her, “Goddamn, woman I am tired of you”! During her first pregnancy by Adams a physician associate, Dr. Dillard Workman, attended her prenatal care. When the baby girl was born the doctor refused to give McCollum a birth certificate.  Some Black folks in Live Oak suspected that Dr. Adams addicted McCollum to heroin or cocaine to control her, according to the TV documentary.

Carlton Jackson, another resident of Live Oak, voiced the same suspicion: “Well, the first thing I thought was Wow. That doctor must have done something wrong . . . mighty bad. Than I was told that she was pregnant by the doctor. I was told, too, that he was giving her drugs. I was going into medicine . . . I’d worked with one doctor already. I know that some drugs was habit forming, so I figured he must have been giving her habit forming drugs. And it probably got to the place where she wanted a drug and he wouldn’t give it to her unless she did something. All this was in my mind. What actually happened, I don’t know. And eventually, since she got pregnant, she might have gone down and just wanted to end the whole thing”.

'Paramour rights' gave southern White males the right to rape Black women and young girls

Despite his wife giving birth Dr. Adam’s child, Sam McCollum was helpless to do anything. He knew the little curly haired, light skin child wasn’t his. He couldn’t kill the doctor or tell him to stop raping and impregnating his wife. The law was not on his side no matter how much money he had.

John Yulee, of Live Oak, who was interviewed for the movie “You Belong to Me” talked about a closeted secret that was not so secret in the small town. “Black people used to say a White man touched that lady. You’re working in their homes, tobacco fields, they’re the boss. You can’t file a complaint. The boss was right and you were wrong. If a baby comes out light-skinned, you had to live with it”.

Tameka Hobbs, history professor at Florida Memorial University, and citizen of Live Oak said, “With Ruby there was so much shame with the Black community. Because of the sexual liaison they really did not want to talk about it”. In the early days, unlike today in the era of social media and networks, Black folks didn’t “air their dirty laundry” in public. No matter the sin or the deed it was hush-hush in the family. But there was behind the door whispering, and we know your secret stares.

The boisterous argument between Dr. Adams, 44, and McCollum concluded with Adams getting shot four times. He had a hundred dollar bill in his hand that Ruby had given him for a bill. She had demanding a receipt.  After shooting Adams, McCollum got into her car and drove home. Two of her children were in the car; the youngest was fathered by Adams. Many folks in Live Oak believed the bill was a ruse. She had $1,800 in her purse. The McCollum’s were known to pay their bills on time.

McCollum was arrested the same day at her home. She was quickly whisked off to the Florida State Prison Farm in Raiford, 50 miles in Suwannee County. In Live Oak the KKK would have dragged her out of the jail and hanged her before she could go to trial. Live Oak White folks were sticklers for Blacks following the rules of no race mixing, and staying in their place. No Black person could kill a White person and get away with it! A Black woman was jailed for six months when she was caught drinking from the “White Only” water fountain.

One true story in Live Oak’s past tells of a 15-year-old African American boy named Willie James Howard. He sent a Christmas card to White girl he liked. He paid for this innocent act with his life. On January 2, 1944 three White males dragged Howard out of his parent’s home at gun point. He was hogtied and taken to the Suwannee River. He was never heard from again. No one can explain what happened to him. His body was never recovered or found. The three White males were never arrested.

Ruby McCollum was whisked away secretly by specific police. She was a prominent Black woman. A public arrest would have attracted the media and strangers coming to their state, popping open a can of worms the small county wanted to keep sealed. McCollum supposedly had a black ledger with the names of all the White police, politicians and other folks they paid to keep their eyes closed and their mouths shut. The ledger was never found.

 While she sat in jail McCollum didn’t know that her husband died of a heart attack after fleeing to Ocala, Florida with their children. Hearing that his wife had been arrested for killing Dr. Adams, Sam rushed home to get his daughters, packed some clothes and a suit case full of dollar bills. The fast move was for their safety. History is replete with stories of the KKK or lynch mobs taking revenge on family members, or a Black community if they couldn’t get the person or persons they were after.

Imagine having money, a fancy home, husband and children, wearing expensive clothes, the freedom to travel, but not the freedom to reject the sexual advances of a White man. Ruby McCollum, even with her money, was subjected to the same kind humiliation Black women and young girl encountered living in the South. In the 1950s, some 88 years removed from slavery, a White man could have an African American woman arrested on trumped up charges, or beat her if she did not consent to him raping her without fear of judicial consequences.

'Ruby did not break down and weep piteously'

Zora Neale Hurston
When McCollum’s trial began s noted writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, traveled to Live Oak at the behest of The Pittsburg Courier editor to cover the story. Unfortunately, she could not interview Ruby McCollum or her attorney, Frank Cannon. The title of her series was "The Life Story of Ruby McCollum". Judge Hal Adams imposed a gag order on McCollum to stop her from participating in interviews with the media. Hurston had to sit in the segregated balcony in the courtroom.

McCollum’s Black attorney, realizing that he couldn’t mount a convincing case to an all White jury, all of whom former patients of the Dr. Adams, turned the case over to a White attorney named Frank Cannon.

Hurston wrote: “Ruby was allowed to describe how, about 1948, during an extended absence of her husband, she had, in her home, submitted to the doctor. She was allowed to state that her youngest child was his. Yet, 38 times Frank Cannon attempted to proceed from this point; 38 times he attempted to create the opportunity for Ruby to tell her whole story, and explore what were her motives; 38 times the state objected and 38 times the judge sustained these objection”. The objections frustrated Cannon. The judge has the power.

Hurston observed: “Ruby did not break down and weep piteously there was an abrupt halt in her testimony and something rushed from the deep of her tortured soul and inhabited her face for a space. The quintessence of human agony was there”.

 McCollum testified that she was caught between a rock and a hard place and the hard place was squeezing the life out of her. “I was so worried I had to either yield or maybe die. I suppose that was what would happen”. Zora Neale Hurston exposed a sin heaped upon Black women and young girls. She wrote that the trial of Ruby McCollum “sounded the death knell for paramour rights”. McCollum was describing her ordeal with Adams' paramour rights.

Keith Black, the prosecuting attorney in this case, apprised folks in the courtroom that McCollum “shot Adams in anger over a disputed bill, which was supported by three witnesses during the trial. McCollum herself testified that she had discussed a bill with Dr. Adams that day, but maintained that she shot the doctor in self-defense when he attacked her. Residents in Live Oak knew that McCollum was a wealthy woman and she and her husband were known to pay their bill promptly”. (African American Registry)

McCollum testified of the times the doctor came to her home. “Dr. Adams came out to my house that afternoon, before the morning of the beginning of this sexual relationship, and he told me that afternoon, ‘I will be back in the morning as soon as I finish all of my work. I will be back and I will show you what I was taking about’. And he came back out there the next morning about 9:30 and took me upstairs and laid me down on the bed and began the intercourse. And when it was finished he left, and he said, ‘I will be back some other time. You call me some other time”, and I said, ‘Yes, I will.’

“I told him I had not received a birth certificate for my baby yet, and I was supposed to receive a certificate a month after the baby was born. And I asked if he would get it for me, and he told me ‘I have it, and I am going to keep it until you tell me . . . until you do as I say do.’” (Persphone Magazine)

Ruby McCollum’s trial was historical in a sense that she survived without getting lynched. She had two trials. Not because of a hung jury or acquittal. On December 20, 1952 the male White jurors, all 12 former patients of the deceased, found her guilty of murder. She was sentenced to die in Florida’s electric chair. Testified claims that she was repeatedly raped and forced to have a child by Dr. Leroy Adams fell on the deaf ears.

McCollum spent two years on Florida’s death row. July 20, 1954 the conviction and death sentence were overturned on a technicality by the Florida Supreme Court. It seems that Judge Hal Adams (no kin to the deceased) failed to go with the jury to inspect Dr. Adam’s office, the scene of the crime.

McCollum’s attorney, Frank Cannon, filed a motion of insanity on her behalf. That led to an examination by court appointed physicians. The procedure was agreed to by Randall Slaughter, the state attorney. McCollum was declared mentally incompetent. She was sentenced to 20 years in the Florida State Hospital for the mentally in Chattahoochee, Florida.

Her memories disappeared

Cannon visited McCollum in 1974. He had filed papers under the Baker Act, hoping to get his client released from the mental institution. A patient not considered a danger is eligible for release under the Baker Act. Upon her release, McCollum went to live in a rest home in Silver Springs, Florida. Her bill was paid for out of a $40,000 trust fund set up by William Bradford Huie, a writer who chronicled her story in a book titled “Ruby McCollum: A Woman in the Suwannee Jail”. He intended to produce a movie, adapted from the pages of the book.

A reporter with the Ocala Star Banner visited McCollum in 1980. He found that she no longer had memories of her last life. He was told that she suffered Ganser Syndrome, a mental disease that caused McCollum to suppress painful memories. While she was in the mental hospital she had been subjected to shock treatments and heavily medicated, one of the medications being Thorazine.

Ruby McCollum died of a stroke May 23, 1992. She was 82 years old. Her remaining family members arranged for her burial behind the Hopewell Baptist Church next to the brother Matt Jackson, who died less than a year before she passed.

Sam McCollum, Jr. in an attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps was not as successful. Still living in his parent’s home at the time, he was caught with $250,000 cash. He was indicted in federal court on 10 counts of gambling. One of McCollum’s daughter’s was killed in a car accident, the other died of a heart attack.

Because there were no eyes witnesses to the Ruby McCollum/Dr. Clifford Adams tragedy, it is difficult to cite with accuracy, what happened exactly between these two people. Eric Musgrove, a citizen of Live Oak, who was interviewed for the movie “You Belong To Me”, said: “In looking at the Ruby McCollum trial, we’re never going to know everything thing that happened. The only two people that know exactly what happened are now deceased. A lot of what we talk about beyond the written records is going to be hearsay, misconceptions of what happened. But through all the conversation we’re never going to know every facet of what transpired between those two”.