Dr. Johnson’s documentary extends an implicit promise in the
subtitle, “The Untold Story of Ruby McCollum,” which certainly intrigues
followers of this famous 1952 North Florida murder case in which a wealthy
“colored” woman, Ruby McCollum, murdered her white paramour, Dr. C. Leroy
Adams, shortly after he was elected to serve in the Florida state senate.
Dr. Johnson states that she first became interested in the
Ruby McCollum story when she moved to Live Oak around 1980, and listened to the
townspeople’s account of the story. She reports that she later interviewed some
of these people on camera, but ceased her interviews almost 10 years ago because
of a death threat against her for trying to get the story out to the public.
She reports that she only recently compiled and edited the story with her
narrative to create the 2012 release.
Readers unfamiliar with the story of Ruby McCollum deserve a
bit of background on the research of others prior to Dr. Johnson’s documentary.
In 1952, the famous African-American novelist and
anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Live Oak, Florida to cover the
trial of Ruby McCollum. Hurston’s report of the murder trial appeared in a
series of articles in the nationally distributed Pittsburgh Courier, ending
with McCollum’s conviction.
During McCollum’s appeal of her death sentence, Hurston’s
work was continued for the Courier by William Bradford Huie. During McCollum’s
appeal, Huie was troubled by Judge Hal W. Adams’ gag order on Ruby McCollum,
and mounted unsuccessful litigation to overturn this order. It should be noted
that Judge Adams was not related to the murder victim, Dr. Adams.
Huie also conducted an extensive investigation of Dr. Adams’
background, which was considered so salacious in Suwannee County that his book,
"Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail," was banned in Florida
immediately after its publication in 1957.
While conspiracy theories abound in local lore (many of
which were noted by both Hurston and Huie during their independent investigations),
the facts of the murder itself were covered in McCollum’s murder trial, which
were annotated and published by Dr. Ellis in 2003 as “The Trial of Ruby
McCollum: the true crime story that shook the foundations of the Segregationist
South”, and was updated and published by the same author in 2007 as,
"State of Florida vs. Ruby McCollum, Defendant.”
These two publications mark the first time that the
transcript of the trial was available to the general public, and the first time
that the story was identified as an example of paramour rights in the
Segregationist South, loosely paralleling Hurston’s account of the story. It
also added notes to the daily trial proceedings to assist future researchers,
including a floor plan of Dr. Adams’ office, drawn from the author’s memory, to
assist readers in following the testimony in the trial.
In her 2008 dissertation turned book, “The Silencing of Ruby
McCollum: Race, Class, and Gender in the South,” Dr. Evans, a native of Live Oak, explores McCollum’s
story from the standpoint of a “colored” woman being raised and becoming
financially successful in a time in society where the odds were stacked against
her on a number of levels. As an ostensibly scholarly work, the book expands upon Hurston’s
use of silence as a metaphor for societal suppression and domination.
Unfortunately, the work veers from scholarly research and ventures into suppositions to support a priori conclusions. This is explored in detail in "Hall of Mirrors," by Dr. Ellis.
In 2009, “Zora Hurston and the Strange Case of Ruby McCollum,”
Dr. Ellis tells the story from the perspective of Zora Hurston, and accurately
follows the events of the trial based on Hurston’s newspaper articles, letters,
notes, interviews and the court transcripts. It also documents many of the
characters and places in the story through a series of oil paintings created
from historical photographs and memories of the author, who was born in Live
Enthusiasts of the Ruby McCollum story are also aware that
Ms. Jude Hagin, affiliated with Springtree Studios in Ocala, Florida, and owner
of the website, www.rubymccollum.com, had also extensively interviewed a number
of people in Live Oak over approximately the same timeframe as Dr. Johnson,
including Charles Hall, a business partner of the McCollums who owned the
funeral home that interred Ruby McCollum. She also investigated and explored several
conspiracy theories that maintain Ruby McCollum’s innocence.
Over the course of two decades, Hagin had documented her
many interviews, partnered with others to produce a screenplay, and obtained
the rights to William Huie’s book on the Ruby McCollum story. Her documentary, You Belong to Me, records these interviews.
From personal conversations with Ms. Hagin over 10 years
ago, it appears that Ms. Hagin’s take on Ruby parallels Dr. Johnson’s from the
standpoint that, based on local rumors, both set out the possibility that she
was innocent of the crime of murdering Dr. Adams.
Following the published work of Hurston, Huie, Ellis and Evans—as
well as the extensive unpublished work of
Hagin—Dr. Johnson’s documentary includes interviews with a number of locals
to present her particular take on the story of Ruby McCollum, emphasizing the
subject of how the town still wants to silence the story—hence the title, “The
Other Side of Silence.”
Johnson’s title was borrowed from the beautiful metaphor originally
coined by Zora Neale Hurston to relay her frustration about the town’s
reluctance to talk about the story, and the fact that she felt that the real
events occurred “on the other side of silence, behind a curtain of secrecy.”
Unfortunately, due to Hagin’s work and 6 published books
on the story to date, the title falls flat for followers of this intriguing
The strong points of Johnson’s documentary include an
interview with Keith Black, the State Attorney during the trial, and is a “must
have” for followers of the Ruby McCollum Story. The interviews with
African-Americans are accurate and touching regarding racial issues of the
1950s, and the association of death by lynching on the banks of the Suwannee
with fish caught from its waters today, is both chilling as well as supported
by historical fact.
These strong points could have been used to create a
stunning documentary. Instead, perhaps because of the slant of the work toward
portraying Ruby McCollum as an innocent victim—rather than a complex character
caught up in a web of illicit sex, drugs, politics and money—Dr. Johnson’s
video loses its focus and resorts to documenting gossip and innuendo.
While it is the role of documentaries to do just
that—document—what is documented and marketed as the “untold story” in
Johnson’s work is not new, consisting as it does of persisting rumors
surrounding the case. Nothing wrong with that, but it is not “the untold
story,” which hints at some new revelations or previously undiscovered facts
about the murder of Dr. Adams.
In the documentary, Dr. Johnson follows Ruby McCollum’s
footsteps on the day of the murder, using a floor plan of Dr. Adam’s office
from “The Trial of Ruby McCollum” and photographs from the Courier to
accurately narrate the event according to the witnesses in the trial.
Dr. Johnson’s 2012 narrative of the trial, apparently
appended some 10 years after her interviews with locals, focuses on McCollum’s
testimony about fearing Dr. Adams, and, from this, concludes that Ms. McCollum
was “raped.” Dr. Johnson then states that the seven year relationship between
Adams and McCollum was an instance of paramour rights, endorsing the opinion
expressed in the 2003 publication, “The Trial of Ruby McCollum,” which explored
Hurston’s views on the trial.
Other than briefly mentioning the segment of McCollum’s
testimony that leads her to the conclusion of rape, Dr. Johnson quotes
Hurston’s account of how many times the prosecution objected to questions by
the defense, without going into the nature of the testimony that was allowed.
In fact, it is a matter of record in the court transcript of
the trial that McCollum’s attorney was able to have his client testify about
her affair with Dr. Adams and the fact that he fathered a child with her.
Dr. Johnson’s documentary does not address the earlier work
of other published authors on this story, including the work of Dr. Ellis, who
maintained that Ruby McCollum’s testimony established this as a landmark trial
in the history of the Civil Rights movement. This, he asserted, because it was
the first time that an African-American woman was allowed to testify about the
paternity of her child by a white man.
Dr. Johnson also passes over the work of Dr. Evans, who made
a valuable contribution to the saga of Ruby McCollum from a cultural perspective,
and does not include the extensive studies and interviews documented by Ms.
While the documentary has collectible value because of the strong
moments with the interview of Keith Black and contemporary African-Americans who
recall the racist 1950s, it falls short of delivering the promised "untold
story" of Ruby McCollum.
In the opinion of this reviewer, it also diminishes
the value of the contribution of McCollum’s testimony to the history of the
Civil Rights movement.
Outstanding documentaries investigate all sides of a story
and address conflicting opinions, cutting to the factual core of the issue. This
documentary, in an apparent attempt to turn Ruby McCollum into an innocent
victim of rape, did none of this.
Copyright notice: Images in this article are protected by
copyright law. Permission to reproduce in any form must be obtained in writing
from C. Arthur Ellis, Jr., Ph.D.