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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 Oak.

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 story.

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. Hagin.

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.