A few weeks ago, an 18-year-old black woman by the name of Nia Wilson was killed by an alleged white supremacist who stabbed her and wounded her sister at an Oakland transit station. The deep cries for justice for the Wilson sisters brings to mind another story of black women’s abuse at the hands of white men.
The woman? Ruby McCollum, a rich black woman was repeatedly raped and abused by a white doctor. McCollum eventually killed the doctor. Her journey through America’s justice system is at once tragic and revealing. Her trial was covered by acclaimed author, Zora Neale Hurston, through whom we have McCollum’s side of the story anyway.
Although McCollum was convicted of the crime, eventually ending up at a mental hospital then leading a very silent life, her story of courage and perseverance set the precedence for many Black women seeking justice. This is McCollum’s story:
Ruby McCollum was born August 31, 1909, in Zuber, FL. She is believed to have been brilliant, having attended a school for gifted Black children at a young age. In 1931, Ruby Jackson married Sam McCollum. They lived briefly in New York but returned to Florida, where her husband joined an illegal gambling story, which along with other properties and activities, brought the family considerable wealth.
Although prosecutors say that McCollum killed Adams over a $116 medical bill, it is alleged that Ruby was being sexually abused by Dr. Adams for years and was pregnant with his second child at the time of his murder. The University of Florida recounts the story succinctly below:
Despite her wealth, Ruby could not escape the clutches of the Jim Crow South, nor the inherent racism that came with it. One antebellum belief that had survived into Ruby’s day was the practice of paramour rights – a white man’s sexual entitlement to any black woman of any age or marital status, without consequence. Enter Dr. C. LeRoy Adams, a white State Senator-elect who, according to Ruby, had sexually violated her repeatedly over the years, leading her to giving birth to a daughter fathered by Dr. Adams. On August 3rd, 1952, Ruby McCollum pregnant once again by the Doctor, did something that grabbed national attention and paved the way for the abolition of what was essentially racially motivated sexual slavery: she shot Dr. Adams four times, killing him.
McCollum was taken to court where she was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to the electric chair. Due to a technicality and Judge Hal Adams not being present at the crime scene during the inspection, she was granted a retrial. During her retrial, her attorney Frank Cannon sought to have McCollum deemed unfit for trial due to mental incompetence. Thereafter, she was committed to the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, FL for 20 years.
According to Blackthen, it is suspected that Ruby McCollum suffered from Ganser Syndrome because she had no recollection of Dr. C. Leroy Adams’s murder. It is alleged that Florida State Hospital may have had a hand in her mental demise, as doctors and nurses were believed to have been performing electroshock therapy and giving patients too much Thorazine, both of which have negative effects on memory.
But as the Chicago Defender said, despite the confusion around McCollum’s life after her trail, her courageous act set precedence in America’s legal system.
Although black women had long endured sexual abuse from white women since and especially during the time of slavery, McCollum was the “first black woman to testify against a white man’s sexual abuse and paternity of their child”. In America’s deep South of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, it is surprising that McCollum even had a voice. As the Chicago defender puts it, “many historians are shocked that McCollum received a trial at all, as opposed to being lynched”.
McCollum’s case also challenged the idea of paramour rights, “the widespread practice among white men of having sexual relationships with black women by force or coercion, that led to the proliferation of mixed-race children in the South …[one of the] many ugly realities born of slavery”. McCollum’s trial brought the unspoken practice to national light and conversation. “Ruby put whites on notice that maybe Blacks weren’t going to stand for this anymore”, historian C. Arthur Ellis, Jr says.