Some people question why Black History
Month is still hanging around. After all, the nation now has an
African-American President, and African Americans who want to study their
history have access to a flood of books and internet sites dedicated to the
subject. So why doesn't this Black History Month thing just die with a whimper?
The answer to that question lies in the wisdom of Winston Churchill's words, “History is
written by the victors.”
With the announcement of a new movie from Springtree
Studio about the life and murder trial of Ruby McCollum, based on the writing
of William B. Huie, there is no clearer instance of how the work of
African-Americans has been credited to others.
To make this point clear, it is
necessary to introduce Zora Neale Hurston, whose work on the Ruby McCollum
story was set aside in favor of the work of William B. Huie.
Zora Neale Hurston graduated from
Barnard College with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. While she was at
Barnard, a part of her scholarly work was to conduct ethnographic research with
noted anthropology student Margaret Mead.
After her graduation, one of Hurston’s projects was
to document the folk songs and stories of “Negroes” in the timber camps of
North Florida. There, in the turpentine woods, she found white men forcing
“colored” women into sexual servitude, even if they were married. The practice,
called “paramour rights,” continued long after the Civil War ended, and was one
of the ways that white men maintained dominance over what they considered an
inferior and subservient race of people.
Twenty years after completing her research in the
timber camps, Hurston was contacted in the fall
of 1952 by Sam Nunn, editor of the Pittsburgh
Courier, the nationally published African-American newspaper, to cover a
murder trial in Live Oak, Florida. There, in a small town near the timber camps
that Hurston had lived in to carry out her research, the wife of a wealthy
African-American gambling kingpin had allegedly shot and killed her white
paramour after forcing her to have his children. The wealthy African-American
woman was Ruby McCollum. Her paramour was Dr. C. Leroy Adams, a physician of messianic
stature in Suwannee County, who had just been elected to the Florida state
senate by a landslide.
Both Hurston and Nunn agreed that Ruby McCollum’s
story might very well be a case of paramour rights, and that the murder trial
might be a forum to expose this Jim Crow practice to a national reading
accepting a freelance assignment to cover McCollum’s trial, Hurston travelled
to Live Oak to investigate the backstory of the murder. During the trial, she
wrote a series of articles for the Courier, ending with a final article
announcing Ruby McCollum’s death sentence, handed down just before Christmas.
1953, following the trial, Hurston penned a serialized “Life Story of Ruby
McCollum” for the Courier, which came to an abrupt halt when Hurston and
the Courier had a falling out over her compensation for her special
assignment. After that, the Courier filled in the missing column with a
solicitation to its readers entitled “Ruby, Good or Bad?” and published the
flood of incoming letters to the editor as a distraction for its subscribers.
both disappointed over the verdict in the trial and betrayed by the Courier,
Hurston returned south to her home in Eau Gallie, Florida. Sometime afterwards,
she took some comfort in the fact that McCollum’s testimony in her own defense
marked the first time that a woman of African-American descent was allowed to
testify as to the paternity of her child by a white man. Hurston firmly
believed that Ruby McCollum’s testimony sounded the death toll of paramour
rights in the Segregationist South.
and financially destitute, Hurston felt helpless to follow McCollum’s appeal of
her death sentence to Florida’s Supreme court. Hurston remembered Huie from
when they both wrote articles for an avant-guard magazine, The American
Mercury, for which he became the editor in 1950. Hurston pleaded with the
man she respected to look into the case with an eye to taking up where she had
left off. For quite a while, her pleas fell on deaf ears. After all, a man of
Huie’s stature found little of interest in what he considered the trial of a
woman scorned, regardless of the racial mix of the love affair gone wrong.
As fate would
have it, Huie had already planned a beach vacation to Florida with his first wife,
Ruth. Making his way through Florida, Huie decided to drive through Live Oak to
speak with the Honorable Hal W. Adams, the judge who had presided at the
McCollum trial. Being a circuit judge, Adams was not in Live Oak at the time,
so Huie had to drive south about 30 miles along the two-lane stretch of Highway
51 to Mayo, Florida where he was told he could find the judge.
Huie arrived at the jurist’s office in the Mayo County courthouse, Judge Adams
gave him a warm greeting, but the nature of the conversation grew tense as the
famous journalist pressed the elderly man for permission to speak with Ruby
McCollum, who now sat in the Suwannee County Jail in Live Oak awaiting her
appeal to Florida’s Supreme Court. Judge Adams demurred, stating that he was
not going to allow reporters to “sensationalize” the trial for their own
financial gain. Huie persisted. Judge Adams was adamant.
the man that an October 25, 1954 article in Time Magazine called “a
glib, self-promoting free-lance writer who likes nothing better than to be in
hot water,” Huie sensed a dynamite opportunity to pursue his calling. Judge
Adams was denying Ruby McCollum her First Amendment rights. For today’s readers
it might be hard to believe, but for most people in 1952—long before the
Patriot Act was even a twinkle in a zealot’s eye—freedom of speech for the
accused, as well as freedom of the press, were considered right up there with
the Ten Commandments.
a long story short, Huie retained an attorney to fight for Ruby McCollum’s
First Amendment rights to speak freely, as well as his right of freedom of the
press to speak with her. This action earned him the attention of the Pittsburgh
Courier and Ebony Magazine, and ended Hurston’s involvement with the
Ruby McCollum story.
soon became known as the self-proclaimed champion of Ruby McCollum, the
oppressed “colored” woman who was fighting for her life, even though Hurston
had covered McCollum’s murder trial and was the first to bring it to the
attention of the nation. And, because of his brilliant self-promotion, Huie
came down through history as the man who kept McCollum out of Florida’s
electric chair, even though her attorneys had crafted and filed what eventually
became a successful appeal of her death sentence with Florida’s Supreme Court
long before Huie arrived at the scene.
story of how Hurston, an African-American female, disappeared from history as
the chronicler of the Ruby McCollum saga and how she was replaced by William
Bradford Huie, a white male, plays itself out in 5 acts.
Act: After Huie decided the Ruby McCollum’s story rose to a level sufficient to
merit his time, he contacted Hurston (now settled into her little rented
cottage in Eau Gallie, Florida) and asked her for her notes on the trial. Hurston
gladly obliged, toying with the idea of collaborating with Huie to write a book
on the story. After sharing her work and in many ways collaborating with Huie
on his book through a series of letters, Hurston corresponded with Huie on July
1, 1954, writing “…I am not sure that I
can get up there to the trial unless you send me at least transportation.” It
is clear from this letter, and another that followed on July 28, that Hurston
was most anxious to attend the trial that followed the Supreme Court's reversal
of the first trial and death sentence for Ruby McCollum. But Huie never sent
the transportation money—which was little more than pocket change to
him—leaving Hurston unable to attend the trial. He did, however, use her work
in his book, citing her contribution only in passing, clearing a tidy profit while Hurston fell into financial despair.
Act: Huie’s First Amendment rights suit
died with a whimper. Ruby McCollum was never allowed to speak with reporters.
Instead, after a psychiatric examination to determine her fitness to stand a
new trial, Ruby McCollum was determined to be insane and was immediately
committed to the Florida State Mental Hospital in Chattahoochee.
Act: On his way to the Jacksonville airport just prior to McCollum’s second
trial, Huie went out of his way to stop in Lake City, Florida to speak with Dr.
Fernay, the psychiatrist who had seen Ruby for the court, and, in his own
words, told him he wanted to “tell him a thing or two” about Judge Adams and
Dr. Adams (no relation). Dr. Fernay immediately went to Judge Adams and
maintained that Huie had told him about illegal dealings between Judge Adams
and Dr. Adams. The judge was furious, and issued a contempt of court charge
against Huie for attempting to influence an expert witness in the trial.
Act: When Huie appeared before the Judge
on his contempt of court charge, he refused to pay the fine, demanding instead
to serve time in jail. Judge Adams, believing that Huie’s demand was a thinly
veiled publicity stunt, denied Huie’s request and told him to get out of the
courtroom and come back when he was ready to pay the fine. Huie then stormed
out of the courtroom and walked directly across the street to the Western Auto
store, where he bought a roll of duct tape. He then went to his car and taped
the horn ring down to the steering wheel. On his third trip around the
courthouse with his horn blazing, Sheriff Sim Howell arrested Huie—not for
contempt of court—but for disturbing the peace. Thus ended Huie’s Battle of
Act: When Huie asserted that he spent thousands of dollars on the First Amendment
rights and contempt of court cases, he failed to mention that the Courier
appealed to its readers to help him financially, causing thousands of its
readers to stuff dollar bills into envelopes and mail them to this crusader for
Truth, Justice and the American Way. To date, there has never been an
accounting for these cash contributions.
As an epilogue, it was McCollum's attorney, Frank Cannon, who, without pay, filed suit under the new Baker Act to free her from the Florida state mental hospital in 1974. Huie, the self-proclaimed hero of McCollum, was still alive, yet played no part in her release.
the case of Ruby McCollum is an example of history being written by the victor.
And, if this isn’t enough, Huie’s revisionist history is soon to be honored by
the aspiring movie makers at Springtree Studios in Gainesville, Florida who are
gearing up their first production with a script based on Huie’s book.
this upcoming Black History Month, Zora Hurston should be celebrated for
fearlessly walking into the heart of darkness to sit in the segregated balcony
of the courtroom during McCollum’s murder trial. It was there, in full sight of town KKK members, that she penned notes for the weekly
Courier articles. Without her efforts, McCollum may very well have been
lynched, and her story would never have been recorded for history.
you know why Black History Month is still needed.
NOTE: Jude Hagin has now announced a newer project, a documentary entitled YOU BELONG TO ME. It began filming in 2013 but no release date has been announced. A trailer for the documentary is posted at http://www.youbelongtome.net/journey/
Essentially, the proposed documentary is an interview with Live Oak locals on their impressions of how the trial has affected the community. Its major contribution is to show the gun that Ruby used to murder Adams. It seems that the gun was removed from the evidence room by the Clerk of the Court at the time and made part of his personal collection. It is now in the possession of his son. ====================================================
Arthur Ellis, Jr. , a native of Live Oak, Florida, is the author of Zora
Hurston And The Strange Case Of Ruby McCollum, a historical novel written
in the voice of Zora Hurston. He has
also published an annotated version of the previously lost transcripts of the
Ruby McCollum trial in State of Florida
vs. Ruby McCollum, Defendant. Dr. Ellis now makes his home near
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