Who was Ruby McCollum?
The answer depends on who tells the story. The answer depends on the uneven political and social power that maintains silence, white supremacy, and racial and gender injustice.
The short answer is that she was a victim survivor, objectified and subjugated until she sought justice herself by killing her rapist.
According to the 2014 John Cork-produced Netflix Documentary You Belong to Me, Ruby McCollum was the wealthiest Black woman in Live Oak, Florida, located in Suwannee County just east of Tallahassee. Everyone in town knew both Ruby and her husband, Sam McCollum Sr., who was known for his liquor and Bolita ball businesses. Bolita, which is a form of gambling, represented an unconventional type of money circulation within the community. Both businesses were “illegal,” as Live Oak was dry at the time. One must ask, however, how the businesses seemed to thrive against Jim Crow era violence, segregation, and aggressive law enforcement.
The only answer that makes sense is through the corruption of the state, which always seems to benefit from carefully curated, and always shifting, support and suppression of black business when and where it is most advantageous to the state’s bottom line. Undoubtedly, there was involvement from white communities in these “illegal” activities, and these communities of course yielded institutional, political power that strangely protected Sam as the owner of the businesses, all the while holding the power to shut him down at any time, a threat most obvious within the law enforcement operation, healthcare system, and local government.
In 1948, Live Oak received the Hill-Burton Act, a bill awarding federal funding for healthcare facilities in rural areas. This federal policy provided free and reduced health care at Suwannee County Hospital for those who had income at or below the poverty wage. While this funding provided more healthcare access to communities of color, it also circulated through a dehumanizing system that contributes to dismissing and pathologizing the health medical needs of racially marginalized communities. This program gave rise to Dr. Clifford LeRoy Adams, who served as an established medical doctor and was elected state Senator in Live Oak in 1952.
Adams was a public figure and had levels of social, political, and economic power within Suwannee County and… he was white. Ruby McCollum was one of his patients. She trusted him with her health, and consequently her body. Unbeknownst to her family and the community, Ruby was raped by Dr. Adams, then carried and birthed his child, Loretta. She pretended as though Loretta was conceived with her husband.
I imagine she felt powerless. I imagine she thought about her life and her family should the truth about her assault be shared. I imagine she thought about the consequences of the truth, her and her family being harmed and or killed. Further, Ruby McCollum was a Black woman in 1952, who was going to believe her?
The answer is no one. And if someone did believe her, they would likely tell her to be silent, reminding her of the magnitude of power that Dr. Adams had.
On August 3, 1952, Ruby murdered Dr. Adams.
In 2019, the same questions can be asked when it involves the sexual assault of Black women at the hands of men in power.
Who is going to believe her? How will she get justice for what she endured? Will she get justice for what she endured?
Issues of race, class, sexual assault and violence, gender and corruption in local, national, and global politics are not new, specifically in the United States. These issues are unsettlingly pervasive and perpetuated by the often-toxic masculinity of cisgender men. There are so many reasons women do not report sexual violence, and a victim or survivor’s reasoning should not be weaponized against them. All too often questions like “Why didn’t she say anything then?” and “Why didn’t she fight back?” are used to condemn victim-survivors when they raise their voice. Condemning people is not a good strategy. It is violent, willfully ignorant, and completely dismissive of the historical, social and political infrastructures, e.g. colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, etc. that endorse violence again women. Our efforts should instead go towards condemn the systems that cause chaos in a victim or survivor’s life.
- Condemn the systems that do not make it safe to move through.
- Condemn the systems that do not make justice reliable.
- Condemn the system that openly dismisses their voices and stories, making them feel powerless.
- Educate your communities on consent and the difference between consent and coercive behavior.