There are few historical treasures unearthed by mankind that rival the intrigue conjured by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb or pure diamond’s excavated from Africa’s darkest mine.
While cultural anthropologists deserve any and all preservation credit due, my life has been perpetually changed by the recent discovery of the historical, dark, and unequivocally riveting tale of a 1952, southern Florida murder that left a wealthy black jewel named Ruby damned and defeated by a racially systemic environment that lacked judicial regard.
On Thursday evening, September 13, 2012, The Ritz Theatre and LaVilla Museum in Jacksonville, Florida hosted the first state viewings of Claudia Hunter Johnson’s documentary, “The Other Side of Silence: the untold story of Ruby McCollum.”
Fascinating. Intriguing. Curious. Unimaginable. Compelling. Masterful. Astounding. Tragic. Appalling. Entertaining. Controversial. Enthralling.
A non-competitive litany of adjectives are necessary to describe both the award-winning documentary and its picturesque content.
An eager crowd of local supporters joined author, filmmaker, and Florida State University scholar Claudia Hunter Johnson for an evening that both opened and closed with prayer. A post-viewing discussion led by Jacksonville author and Civil Right’s Activist Rodney L. Hurst, Sr. (pictured below), allowed the author and political figures featured in the documentary – including Doug Udell – to further enlighten my stellar crew of English Composition students from Florida State College, and additional student body from Edward Waters College and the University of North Florida.
We were all joined by the rare appearance of McCollum’s relatives to ponder the possibilities and improbable possibilities surrounding the Florida murder, Ruby’s arrest, trial, and death penalty conviction. Despite a 12 year hiatus, Johnson has managed to resuscitate the antiquated archive in an effort to drive awareness and also keep it on the lips of those determined to expose the story’s depth and perhaps uncover truths.
Arguably one of the south’s most ubiquitous racial scandals, the CHERUBFILM documentary is described as follows via the film company’s press:
“This compelling and compassionate film follows Pulitzer Prize nominee Claudia Johnson’s nineteen-year quest to penetrate the mysterious silence surrounding the story of Ruby McCollum, well educated wife of numbers rackateer “Bolita” Sam and the richest African-American woman in Live Oak, Florida convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to the electric chair for the 1952 murder of her white doctor and alleged lover, state senator elect LeRoy Adams.
News of the interracial murder shocked the nation, the state, and the region escalating racial tension in Live Oak that remains to this day, almost sixty years later.
Johnson (a white female and pictured below), sold and signed copies of her critically acclaimed DVD, is described as a nationally recognized advocate for free speech who connects deeply to Ruby’s story. Her memoir titled, “Stifled Laughter: One Woman’s Story About Fighting Censorship” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1991, Johnson discovered that the white power structure silenced Ruby, on the stand and to the press. Renowned author and cultural anthropologist Zora Neal Hurston covered the notoriously unfair trial and is quoted to have said, “The truth lay on the other side of silence.”
Johnson’s inspiration is led by a curiosity to determine why Ruby was silenced and why she killed Dr. C. LeRoy Adams who was a highly regarded Live Oak citizen slated to become a state senator. Allegedly, Ruby did not commit the crime and this personal, investigative mission serves as the foundation for the author’s multi-decade quest to not necessarily solve a “Who dunnit?” but rather give voice to a woman whose constitutional rights were grossly violated.
There are so many elements of intrigue, shock & awe, and appalling twists and turns related to this story, I have difficulty selecting the single aspect that emotionally chokes me the most.
First, this murder and subsequent trial essentially occurred in Jacksonville’s backyard, but I had never before heard this story in my near half-century life.
I am uncomfortably aware of both Live Oak, Florida and Suwanee County, but more so the “Suwannee River” for its legendary, tree-lined legacy of hanging “strange fruit,” Stephen Foster’s lyricist contributions to Florida’s former state song, and current existence as a tourism site.
Representative S. P. Robineau of Miami introduced House Concurrent Resolution No. 22 in 1935, designating “Swanee River” as the official state song. It replaced “Florida, My Florida,” which had been adopted as the state song in 1913. In 2008, the Legislature designated that a revised version of the lyrics be the official version.
Here’s the thing: there’s folklore, legend, southern rumor, and then the actual silencing of a historical event that would otherwise only be known to towns’ people or the legal community who call upon its outcome as a formidable precedence for injustice.
Second, it’s a true story about a black woman, an (alleged) interracial love affair, a love child, an abortion attempt, Paramour Rights, corruption, wealth and power during a time when civility for blacks was pre-dated by the equitable outcome of Rosa Park’s infamous sit, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s pivotal March on Washington and the resulting Civil Rights Act that soon followed.
It’s history, but more personally (for me) is the ghastly fact that Ruby’s constitutional rights were violated, (and yes, I am aware that another human being lost his physical life. His survivors and descendants are equally offered my condolences despite the controversial circumstances).
I’ve said it before, and it has since become a personal Penny mantra:
“Don’t mute my 1st.”
The facts, as understood by me, are that Ruby was indeed afforded an expeditious trial, but denied to be tried by a jury of her peers, was sentenced to the electric chair, and sat in the Suwannee County Jail for two years. Inserted below is an excerpt from a Book Review of author William Bradford Huie’s 1956 offering, “Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwanee Jail.” The book is currently out of print.
Ruby McCollum later accepted a forced, yet negotiated “insanity” plea agreement which resulted in her being sent to Florida’s Chattahootchee State Prison for the mentally ill.
That would be “wow” without an exclamation point that follows. That would be a flat, ill-uttered, unbelievable “wow” because more than 30 requests were made for Ruby to take the stand to testify on her own behalf and each was denied.
Ruby was silenced, sentenced, and then unceremoniously sat for a two-year span behind steel, Suwannee bars before being hauled off like a black bundle of nothing to serve what would be 20 years in a three-story, brick establishment of clinical white despair.
I must admit that during the Q&A that followed the viewing, I was authorial intrigued by the passion, drive, and sheer hutzbah required by Johnson who endured threats to her life in an effort to see the full realization of such a monumental project. Artists. What know we of boundary? (nothing).
There is also nothing (essentially) funny about any of this, but my overwhelming need to find “light” in everything leads me to wonder how small Florida towns acquired such a ridiculous need for so many poly-syllabic, double-consonant, double-vowel names?(Suwannee, Apalachee, Chattahoochee, Callahan).
They just wreak: country dirt-roads, the Mineral Store, pickles in a barrel, Where’s da Sheriff? and “Lynch the darkie.”
I’m thinking ( historically) before phonetics were respected, spelling was disregarded by the ignorant and ignorance fueled the actions of the south and the south was historically notorious for ignoring the rights of both its people and the constitution established to protect the rights of the same.
Yeah, I know. It’s a stretch for a light moment in an otherwise heavy subject that continues to pain so many, but indeed ignorance is bliss, but ignorance did not miss a single mark in the pathetic legal case of Ruby McCollum.
Incredulous injustice defines this legal debacle not just for the legend and folklore and reflection of things “gone bad,” but pain – real pain – for another moment in time that is resonant of what makes too many aspects of American history an embarrassment.
Florida gets the coveted honor of hosting Disney’s magic, but all the magic wands and wonder dust on planet earth are not enough to eradicate the Sunshine State’s cultural back story that leaves little to brag about.
Once again, Ruby’s tragic story advances my mantra: “Don’t mute my 1st.” Had the Miranda Rights been established or had Ruby been afforded the chance to exercise her constitutional rights, I believe the legend and outcome of her case would be much different.
Zora was firm in that “the truth lay on the other side of silence.”
I am firm in that Ruby’s rights as an American citizen were grossly violated which rendered her one of society’s most unfortunate cases of judicial corruption and injustice.
Ruby was initially sentenced to death, but ultimately served a life sentence far worse that I’ve dubbed:
“Shut-up and serve time.”
Click link to watch movie trailer
Click link to view the website for Civil Rights Activist & Author Rodney L. Hurst, Sr.
Penny Dickerson 2012